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Thousands of opposition supporters in Belarus tried to storm the main government building to protest what they claim was large-scale vote-rigging in Sunday’s presidential election, but they were driven back and beaten by riot police.
Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes with the police, left bruised and bloody after being beaten with clubs. An Associated Press reporter at the scene also was struck on the head, back and arm.
Up to 40,000 opposition activists rallied in central Minsk to call for longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko to step down. It was the largest opposition rally since mass street protests against Lukashenko in 1996, but it was over within hours. By late Sunday, police had cleared Independence Square of all demonstrators.
Protesters broke windows and glass doors of the government building, which also houses the Central Election Commission, but they were repelled by riot police waiting inside. Hundreds more riot police and Interior Ministry troops then arrived in trucks and sent most of the demonstrators fleeing. Some tried to hide in the courtyards of nearby apartment buildings, but were bludgeoned by troops waiting inside the courtyards.
Few had expected tens of thousands to join the election-night protest, which Lukashenko had made clear would be dispersed by force. The question remained of whether the opposition had the momentum to maintain pressure on Lukashenko or whether Sunday’s violence would effectively put an end to the opposition’s hopes.
“We had a peaceful protest and it is the authorities who used force,” said Marat Titovets, a 40-year-old engineeer. “After Lukashenko spilled blood, he cannot remain in power.”
Leading opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was beaten by riot police while leading a few hundred of his supporters to the demonstration and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, according to his wife. His left eye was bruised, his nose was bleeding and he was nauseous and unable to speak, Olga Neklyayeva told the Associated Press.
Another opposition candidate, Vitaly Rymashevsky, was beaten in clashes with riot police by the government building. He claimed that the people who attempted to storm the building were police acting as demonstrators and that he was attacked when he tried to stop them.
After the polls closed, thousands of opposition activists converged as planned on October Square, but most of the square had been flooded to make an ice skating rink and pop music boomed from loudspeakers.
The protesters then set off along the main avenue toward Independence Square, where the main government building is located.
The demonstrators shouted “leave” to Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994 in a heavy-handed regime that is often characterized as the last dictatorship in Europe.
“Belarusians have shown that they want freedom and cannot tolerate the current regime,” opposition leader Yaroslav Romanchuk said.
Russia and the European Union are closely monitoring the election, having offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction.
Signs that Lukashenko is leaning toward the West would be a moral victory for countries that have long criticized his harsh rule and worried about his connections with vehemently anti-West regimes. For Russia, a return to the fold would bolster Moscow’s desire to remain the power-broker in former Soviet regions.
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