Police storm opposition tent camp in Belarus - 24 March, 2006 - News

Police stormed the opposition tent camp in the Belarusian capital of Minsk early Friday morning, detaining hundreds of demonstrators who had spent a fourth night in a central square to protest President Alexander Lukashenko's victory in a disputed election.

The arrests came after a half dozen large police trucks and around 100 helmeted riot police with clubs pulled up to Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk about 3 a.m. (2300 GMT Thursday).

The police stood around for a few minutes and then barged into the tent camp filled with protesters.

They first wrestled about 50 resisting demonstrators into the trucks. The rest of the 200-300 demonstrators then filed into the trucks quietly, seeing that the end had come for the days-long protest that was unprecedented in the authoritarian ex-Soviet state.

Journalists were kept about 20 meters away behind police lines, but a local reporter who gave her name only as Olga said she heard a man who was apparently heading the operation yell "I told you not to beat them."

The police who stormed into the camp had long truncheons, but were not seen beating demonstrators, as they had done often when breaking up smaller opposition rallies in past years. One local journalist said she saw police kick a few demonstrators who fell as they were being hustled into the truck.

By the end of the 10-15 minute operation, all of the protesters had been taken away, leaving only the remains their encampment, about 20 backpacker-type tents, blankets, thermoses, refuse and several of the red-and-white flags that the demonstrators had waved. The flags were post-Soviet Belarus's official standard, but under Lukashenko they were scrapped for a flag restoring Soviet-era designs.

City workers soon began throwing the remains of the camp into dump trucks, aided by two bulldozers scooping up debris. A stray dog wandered in during the operation and scrounged for food in what was left of the camp.

The United States, a persistently harsh critic of Lukashenko, was quick to denounce the police raid.

"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," said State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus, reports the AP.

I.L.