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Fifth day of protests against Belarus leader

Written by: Staff
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MINSK, Mar 23 (Reuters) About 300 opposition supporters danced and sang folk songs to overcome freezing weather overnight, keeping up protests against Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election for a fifth day today.

The protests, unprecedented in the former Soviet state where security services usually crack down quickly on dissent, began on Sunday after Lukashenko was declared the landslide winner of polls branded as flawed by international monitors.

''We do not expect Lukashenko to give up his power just because we are here,'' said Sergei, a university graduate who has stayed in the capital's October Square throughout the protests.

''But this tent camp has become a window to a new world for many people,'' he said, declining to give his full name. Like fellow protesters, he has used tents and blankets to keep sub-zero temperatures at bay.

The protest has had echoes of the 2004 ''Orange Revolution'' that brought hundreds of thousands on to streets in neighbouring Ukraine. But there has been no sign of it reaching the same scale, even though the crowd has sometimes swelled to thousands.

In a risky war of nerves with Lukashenko, the opposition has called for a huge rally on Saturday to demand a rerun of the elections.

Despite his 12 years of Soviet-style rule that has made him a pariah in the West, Lukashenko is genuinely popular among the 10 million Belarussians for having ensured relative political and economic stability.

''BEST ORGANISED ELECTIONS'' Electoral authorities are due to meet at 0800 GMT on Thursday to validate Lukashenko's re-election and are set to shrug off objections to the conduct of the polls.

''Those were the best organised elections I have ever seen,'' electoral commission head Lidiya Yermoshina told Russia's Vremya Novostei daily newspaper. ''Local election commissions ... have practically made no mistakes.'' Initial official results showed Lukashenko won with 82.6 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich came second with 6 percent.

Fears of a possible crackdown on the protesters in October Square eased after riot police mostly disappeared from nearby streets where they had been stationed on Tuesday.

Some political analysts say Lukashenko's tolerance may be the result of pressure from ally Russia, which does not want to upset President Vladimir Putin's presidency of the G8 group of leading industrialised nations with violence in its neighbour.

''There have been reports that Putin called Lukashenko ahead of the vote and warned him that the use of force was unacceptable,'' said Yaroslav Romanchuk of the Strategy think-tank.

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

Milinkevich conceded on Wednesday rallies were not enough to topple Lukashenko, a 51-year-old former state farm director.

''I do not think that such a protest can unseat a dictator,'' Milinkevich said on a visit to October Square.

REUTERS SK SP1125

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