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Mass weekend protest in Belarus

Written by: Staff
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MINSK, Mar 22: Several hundred opponents of Belarus's re-elected president, singing songs in sunshine after days of ice and sleet, rallied for a fourth day today and planned a mass weekend protest to demand a rerun of the poll.

But the opposition candidate beaten in the election he and critics in the West say was rigged conceded there was little chance of the protests swelling into a Ukraine-style revolution to unseat Alexander Lukashenko.

''I do not think that such a protest can unseat a dictator,'' Alexander Milinkevich told reporters in a visit to Minsk's October Square, where clusters of mainly young people remained gathered. Many had spent the night in tents.

The main point of Saturday's rally, which marks the independence day of a short-lived Belarussian republic in 1918, would be to show that Belarussians were wakening to alternative voices from the opposition, he said.

The protests, unprecedented for ex-Soviet Belarus, where the security service usually cracks down quickly on dissent, started on Sunday after Lukashenko was announced the winner of a poll branded by independent monitors as neither free nor fair.

Lukashenko, criticised by the opposition and the West for his Soviet style of rule during 12 years in power, won Sunday's elections with an official vote tally of 82.6 per cent.

Milinkevich, his nearest rival, credited with 6 per cent of the vote, called the poll fraudulent.

About 600 protesters, expected to be boosted again by thousands of supporters in the evening, maintained an overnight vigil at the central square into today, their spirits buoyed by the improvement in the wintry weather.

The crowd basked in sunshine, singing songs and sipping coffee. About 100 pro-Lukashenko pensioners appeared in the square and tried to engage the demonstrators in a dispute about the future of Belarus.

Fears of a possible crackdown eased after riot police mostly disappeared from nearby streets where they had been stationed yesterday. Many demonstrators expressed puzzlement that the police had not moved in.

''Frankly, I am surprised (the authorities) have not crushed the protest yet,'' Galina, a 21-year-old student, said as she put a blanket on top of her coat to beat the cold.

RUSSIA, U.S. AT ODDS

The election result has set the United States and other Western countries at odds with Russia. Washington, echoing the findings of international monitors, has accused Lukashenko of intimidating opponents. Moscow has congratulated him.

The protest has had strong echoes of the highly organised 2004 ''Orange Revolution'' that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in neighbouring Ukraine. But there has been no sign of the demonstration reaching the same scale.

Milinkevich has urged his supporters from across the country of 10 million to join Saturday's rally in October Square.

Some participants said that despite unusual tolerance of the opposition, police were still harassing activists.

Yuri, a 21-year-old student who spent the night at the rally, said at least a dozen young men were briefly detained after leaving the square and told not to come back.

''We told policemen that we will be here until the 25th,'' Yuri said, referring to the planned rally. '''You will not survive until then', the cops replied.'' '''You do not know what will happen on the 24th', they said,'' he added. ''It looks like something is simmering in the pot.'' Lukashenko, 51, said his victory marked the failure of an opposition bid to mount a pro-Western coup in Belarus, which borders European Union members Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.

Russia, to the east, is Belarus's main trading partner.

Lukashenko, a former state farm director, says his rule has spared Belarus the social turmoil and hardship that has beset other former Soviet states.

Belarus, or ''White Russia'', became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but a push to revive the Belarussian language and culture was crushed by Lukashenko. He reinstated many Soviet-era symbols, including a flag.

Reuters

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