Alexander Lukashenko sent in riot police to break up days of opposition

Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, ignoring his Western critics, on Friday 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 1000 GMT, vowed Saturday'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, reports Reuters.

I.L.