Lukashenko wins Belarus vote, police battle protestors

Sunday, December 19, 2010

MINSK - Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko won re-election Sunday, exit polls showed, as police battled thousands of opposition activists defying a government ban to street protests.

More than 20,000 demonstrators gathered by early evening in central Minsk, some waving red-and-white flags to protest Lukashenko’s election victory. Others chanted “Long live Belarus!” and “Tell the truth!”

“You can beat us, but you can’t frighten us!” said Andrei Dmitriev, an opposition leader.

Police presence was heavy, with troops in riot gear barring the crowd’s movement toward nearby government buildings. Initial police calls on demonstrators to go home met jeers.

A tense situation became violent shortly before midnight (2200 GMT) when several hundred protestors attacked and attempted to enter government buildings including the central election commission, despite calls from some opposition leaders to remain peaceful.

Demonstrators broke windows, destroyed security cameras and even tore down doors, but were unable to enter because of police officers barricaded inside the buildings.

Police later charged the crowd using clubs and shields. Witnesses reported “dozens” of demonstrators were knocked to the ground in the melee, while hundreds more took flight.

Representatives of police and the anti-government protesters in a 2200 GMT meeting agreed on a temporary truce, with police pulling back their battle lines to allow demonstrators to go home.

The crowd by 2330 GMT was dispersing slowly, though some protesters continued to shout anti-government slogans and insults to Lukashenko.

The authoritarian Lukashenko won re-election with between 72 and 82 percent of the popular vote, according to exit polls. The victory was achieved by massive vote fraud, according to opponents of the authoritarian leader.

The first violent clash between police and demonstrators took place shortly after polls closed, when riot police using clubs and percussion grenades assaulted a group of opposition activists walking toward Minsk’s central Oktober Square.

The group, led by opposition candidate Vladimir Nekljaew, was thrown into snow and arrested, the Belapan news agency reported. Nekljaew was knocked unconscious for some seven minutes, and was later hospitalized with a concussion, according to news reports.

Earlier Sunday, Lukashenko warned opponents that he would not hesitate to order police to break up “illegal” public gatherings.

“What awaits supporters of the protest demonstrations? Read our laws,” Lukashenko said. “Everything will be as per our laws - and that goes for security as well. There is not going to be any demonstration.”

Voting during the day appeared to run smoothly and the Central Elections Committee reported heavy turnout at 84 percent.

But reports of government intimidation against opposition activists were widespread as well.

Members of the observation group For Fair Elections alleged authorities on Sunday cut off office and telephone access in retaliation for giving interviews to Western media.

“Our phones just stopped working after we talked with Voice of America,” said Sergei Kaliakin, a spokesman for the group.

More than 1,000 international observers led by a 490-member delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were in Belarus to monitor the vote. More than 15,000 Belarusian vote monitors were on hand as well.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, had vowed he would defeat his nine challengers without tampering with the electoral process.

But his critics accused him of ordering police to arrest opposition activists and forcing state-controlled media to support him.

“If they (Belarus’ opposition) have been complaining about falsification for six months prior to the election, it means they already knew they would lose,” Lukashenko said in comments to Interfax.

Police in the capital Minsk and outlying cities detained more than a dozen opposition activists on the eve of the election and reportedly scores more on Sunday, according to independent news reports.

Attacks on opposition websites, and a shut-down across Minsk of the communication network Twitter also were reported. Opposition spokesmen accused the Lukashenko government of engineering the internet failures.

Traffic police were checking vehicles travelling into Minsk from outlying regions and barring some travellers police believed to be bound for the opposition rally.

Pro-democracy groups have alleged that Lukashenko’s government in the run-up to voting day pushed early ballot casting, which took place outside the observation of monitors, with the intention of falsifying the Sunday ballot counts.

Almost one in four Belarusians had cast early ballots before election day, according to data compiled by the Central Election Commission.

Lukashenko rejected possible criticism of the election’s legitimacy by the international community.

“Belarus is not going down on her knees before anyone,” he said, responding to a reporter question about his possible fears of international criticism about the vote. It is for us to run our election.”

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