Belarusian police clash with demonstrators as opposition marches against president

Black-clad riot police clubbed demonstrators as government opponents on Saturday marched in defiance of a show of force by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko that has drawn Western sanctions.

Nearly a week into protests set off by a disputed election that handed Lukashenko a third term, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told a crowd of thousands before the march that momentum is growing to bring democracy to Belarus.

The day of confrontation and wildly swinging emotions left two huge questions for the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people, characterized in the West as Europe's last dictatorship: how much dissent are the authorities willing to allow and how much support does the opposition have?

Milinkevich was speaking at an impromptu rally held at a Minsk park after police shoved back protesters from the central city square where they had intended to gather. Police didn't interfere with the park rally that attracted around 7,000 people raising hopes that security forces' long history of violence against dissenters was softening.

But authorities showed their tolerance had distinct limits after rally participants tried to march to a jail where some of the hundreds of people arrested over the past week are being held.

A three-deep phalanx of riot police with shields confronted the marchers at a railroad underpass, then pushed them up the street, beating some bloody with truncheons and arresting about 20. At least four percussion grenades were detonated; Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov later denied the explosions were set off by police, but did not say what caused them.

More than 100 people were arrested during the day, said Ales Byalyatsky of the human rights group Vasnya. Among those arrested at the confrontation with riot police was Alexander Kozulin, who like Milinkevich was a candidate against Lukashenko in the disputed March 19 elections. His spokeswoman Nina Shedlovskaya said he was beaten by police.

Kozulin was the apparent instigator of the march to the jail. That angered Milinkevich, who said, "Kozulin decided to spoil this holiday for the people." The two have appeared together at opposition meetings over the past week, but Milinkevich clearly commands the crowd's affections; in the election campaign, many opposition supporters said they suspected Kozulin of being a Russia-backed straw man or provocateur, reports AP.

O.Ch.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team