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Lukashenko's riot police end Belarus protests

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MINSK, Mar 24 (Reuters) Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, ignoring his Western critics, today sent in riot police to break up days of opposition street protests against his re-election.

Police wearing riot helmets and carrying batons swooped in the early hours on 200 or so demonstrators camped out in Minsk's October Square and drove them away in trucks to a pre-trial detention centre.

The demonstrators, led by a political opposition that plans to hold a mass rally on Saturday, had been pressing for a re-run of last Sunday's election which handed Lukashenko a further five years in power and which they say was rigged.

''The authorities ... only know the language of force,'' main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who has spearheaded the peaceful resistance, told reporters, his voice breaking.

The opposition, due to hold an emergency meeting at 1530 Hrs Ist vowed tomorrow's big show of protest would go ahead. Milinkevich, who was not among those detained, was also planning to hold a news conference.

The five days of protests, in which numbers have ranged from as few as 200 to as many as several thousand, were unusual in that police in the tightly-controlled, ex-Soviet state usually crush dissent out quickly.

The United States, which has branded Lukashenko Europe's last dictator after his 12 years of Soviet-style rule, said it was disturbed by the police action.

Dozens of police wearing riot helmets and carrying batons surrounded the protesters in their makeshift tent camp in the square and told them to disperse. Protesters refused.

Minutes later, police forcibly carried about 10 of them into trucks. Other demonstrators followed without resisting. They were all taken to a pre-trial detention centre.

Belarus state television made a point of quoting city police saying no-one was hurt in the operation. Throughout the police action, an officer in command told his men through a loudhailer not to use excessive force.

Shows of dissent are normally quashed in Belarus with little heed to outside opinion. Some observers said the comparatively gentle way the demonstrators were treated suggested Lukashenko may have become more sensitive to Western opinion now.

Others said he may have come under pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has backed Lukashenko's election victory but, as chairman this year of the Group of 8 rich nations, might not want to be associated with unsavoury police action in Belarus.

Those detained seemed likely to get jail sentences of up to two weeks for public order offences.

LANDSLIDE WIN

Lukashenko won Sunday's elections with an official vote tally of 83 percent. Milinkevich came second with 6 percent. Despite his pariah status in the West, Lukashenko is genuinely popular among the 10 million Belarussians for having ensured relative political and economic stability.

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

''We are disturbed by the break-up of demonstrations and the detention of protestors in Belarus,'' US State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said in a statement in Washington.

''As we have said before, we condemn all acts by the government of Belarus to deprive the citizens of that country of their right to peacefully express their views.'' Belarussian officials have dismissed complaints over the conduct of the elections and endorsed the results.

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

Belarussian television said several members of Ukrainian pro-democracy group Pora, a driving force of the ''Orange Revolution'', were among those detained.

REUTERS

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