Opposition tent camp in Minsk stormed by police

Police stormed the opposition tent camp in the Belarusian capital 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 riot police wielding clubs pulled up to Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk at about 3 a.m. (0100GMT). A few minutes later, they barged into the tent camp.

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 (yards) away, behind police lines, and it was unclear whether police gave protesters a chance to disperse on their own before they were arrested and bundled into the trucks.

The police 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 15-minute operation, all of the protesters had been taken away, leaving only the remains of their encampment about 20 backpacker-type tents, blankets, refuse and several of the historic red-and-white flags that the demonstrators had been waving to signify freedom.

One protester, opposition youth movement member Nikolai Ilyin, 21, said the demonstrators many of them in socks, because they had been sleeping were taken to a Minsk jail. "Many people were made to stand in stockinged feet in the snow for two hours. We were made to stand against a wall with our hands up, and those who would turn their heads or say something were punched in their kidneys," said Ilyin. He said he fainted and was hospitalized, then fled the hospital.

City workers soon began throwing the remains of the camp into dump trucks, aided by two bulldozers scooping up debris, which was quickly cleared from the square. 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," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said in Washington . On Thursday, Belarus lashed out at repeated U.S. criticism of the elections.

"The people of Belarus have made their choice and it's absolutely irrelevant here whether the United States likes this choice or not," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said. European Union leaders were expected to call for sanctions against Belarus at their Friday summit.

The protests began with a rally of more than 10,000 people on Sunday, the day of the election, and about 5,000 came to a second protest on Monday, when a core group decided to make the protests around-the-clock. Police had been detaining opposition supporters and keeping would-be protesters away from the square the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tallied more than 200 arrests in the first three days of the protest but a top police official earlier in the week had said there was no intention to disperse the demonstration. It was not immediately clear what prompted the decision for the pre-dawn storming Friday. An annual television awards ceremony is to be held Friday evening at the Palace of the Republic that borders the square, and the sight of the scruffy tent camp near the gala would have been an embarrassment to the government. The liquidation of the tent camp left in doubt the prospects for the opposition forces who had rallied behind presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich. He has called for a new vote without the participation of Lukashenko, whose election he contends was unconstitutional because he was allowed to run for a third term after an allegedly fraudulent referendum in 2004 abolished term limits.

"The authorities are destroying freedom, truth and justice. There was only enough democracy for three days and this shows the essence of the regime that has been established in Belarus ," Milinkevich told The Associated Press after the storming. "The people on the square were courageous," Milinkevich said, speaking while on his way to the jail. "They got up off their knees and together with them all of Belarus stood up."

Despite that, the number of protesters had never risen to the level that was likely to force change as in post-election protests in the ex-Soviet countries of Georgia , Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan , where opposition leaders eventually came to power. Belarusians who support Lukashenko, crediting him with providing economic and political stability, were happy to see the tent camp gone.

"They had no business being there; it was a stupid rally," said Natalia, 57, a pensioner who declined to give her last name for fear of attracting attention. "We live OK and if it something's not broken, don't fix it." Milinkevich had said Thursday that he planned to announce "the long-term plans of theopposition" at what was intended to be a major demonstration on Saturday, the anniversary of Belarus ' first independence declaration in 1918 and a traditional rallying day for the opposition.

He had been widely expected to call for an end to the protest encampment and speculation was high that he would undertake a door-to-door opposition petition drive in the country of 10 million. He told the AP early Friday that he would continue to call for a rally on Saturday. Milinkevich said one of those detained Friday was a former Polish ambassador to Belarus , Marjusz Maszkewicz. At the jail, Polish Consul Krzysztof Swiderek said Polish citizens were being held but that authorities would not let him in or give him any information, reports the AP.


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