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Belarus opposition defies authorities, calls rally

Written by: Staff

MINSK, Mar 25 (Reuters) Belarus's liberal opposition, its four-day protest snuffed out by police, defied a ban and called a new rally today to denounce what it calls the rigged re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Alexander Milinkevich, defeated opposition candidate in the March 19 poll, urged supporters to mass ''no matter what'' from 1000 GMT in October Square -- site of the tent camp cleared away by police in the early hours yesterday.

If authorities sealed off the square, he said, protesters would move to a different location which he refused to disclose.

Demonstrators are demanding a re-run of the poll which handed Lukashenko five more years in power in the ex-Soviet state that he rules with an iron grip. The official tally gave him 83 percent to just 6 for Milinkevich.

Police had allowed demonstrators to maintain their camp in the square for four days -- with overnight crowds of several hundred swelling to 10,000 and more in the evenings -- before making their early-morning swoop.

But as night fell yesterday, police were more aggressive in preventing dozens of residents from approaching the square with the intention of laying flowers.

One policeman was seen striking in the face a young man who failed to respond rapidly to an order to leave the area.

''I spent three nights in the camp but I was so tired last night I went home to sleep and couldn't be here with my friends,'' said Maksim, 21.

''I came now simply to show solidarity with them.'' SIZE OF PROTEST UNCLEAR It was not immediately clear what support Milinkevich could expect for today's demonstration, which will also mark the independence day of a short-lived Belarussian republic in 1918.

Stiff legislation against illegal assembly and unrelenting police action had kept opposition activity to a minimum in recent months. Most protests attract only dozens of activists.

But authorities have handled this week's protests with comparative tolerance and police may simply divert protesters away from the city centre and avoid confrontation.

Police detained about 300 demonstrators in the square and drove them off in trucks to a pre-trial detention centre.

Opposition activists said 10 demonstrators had been jailed for up to 15 days as court hearings got under way.

The United States and the European Union issued separate statements denouncing the police action and announcing plans to impose restrictions on Belarus, including a travel ban in the aftermath of the election.

But Russia, Lukashenko's main backer, expressed sympathy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- which described the election as flawed -- as playing an ''inflammatory role'' in Belarus.

Lavrov also defended the police action as restrained.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has been branded Europe's last dictator by the United States and is shunned by Western governments because of his Soviet-style policies at home.

Reuters DH VP0510

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