Small turnout for Belarus opposition rallies

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MINSK, Nov 4 (Reuters) Rallies by groups opposed to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, accused in the West of crushing fundamental rights, drew a small turnout today, with just over 1,000 protesters marching through central Minsk.

The rallies, the second such gathering in three weeks, sought to denounce government plans to reduce social benefits.

About 1,000 protesters gathered just outside the city centre and marched to an outlying park, the sole site authorised for the demonstration by city authorities.

''The purpose of today's action was to draw attention to the fact that the authorities are brazenly robbing people,'' said Sergei Kalyakin of the opposition Communist Party.

''It's true there are not many here. That's because people are intimidated. We know that even people who did not turn out are with us in opposing the government's anti-social policies.'' Marchers from different groups carried placards saying ''Give back the benefits''. Some waved banned red-and-white nationalist flags, while others held the Soviet-style flag introduced by Lukashenko or even Soviet-era hammer and sickle standards.

A second group 100-strong, unhappy with holding the protest in the distant square, gathered later in the city centre.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is accused by Western countries of smothering opposition, closing down media and systematically rigging elections in the country of 10 million wedged between Russia and three EU member-states.

He has been barred entry to the United States and European Union over allegations he cheated in securing his re-election to a third term last year.

Lukashenko has called for better ties with the West after quarrelling with Russia over energy prices, but rejects any notion that authorities fail to observe rights. His policies of broad state control over the economy remain generally popular.

The often fractious liberal and nationalist opposition has been plagued by new divisions - splitting this year after removing academic Alexander Milinkevich as leader and replacing him with a rotating leadership.

A march last month to call for closer ties with the EU, intended to underscore opposition unity, drew about 6,000. Larger protests last year to denounce Lukashenko's re-election went on for four days before being broken up by police.

Today's main rally was marked by brief clashes between participants - anarchists and an opposition group operating without official permission. Organisers said the fistfights had been deliberately provoked by the authorities.

Milinkevich did not take part in today's rallies. He was briefly detained at a gathering in the town of Mosty, 300 km west of Minsk, his press secretary said.

REUTERS NY RAI2038

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