By Yuras Karmanau
Monday, December 20, 2010; A08
MINSK, BELARUS - Thousands of opposition supporters in Belarus tried to storm the main government building to protest what the opposition claims was large-scale vote-rigging in Sunday's presidential election, but they were driven back and beaten by riot police.
Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes with riot police and left bruised and bloody after being beaten with clubs. An Associated Press reporter at the scene also was struck on the head, back and arm.
Protesters broke windows and glass doors, but were pushed back by riot police waiting inside the building, which also houses the Central Election Commission. Hundreds more riot police then arrived in trucks.
Up to 40,000 opposition activists rallied in central Minsk to call for longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko to step down.
It was the largest opposition rally since mass street protests against Lukashenko in 1996, but it was over within hours. By late Sunday, police had cleared Independence Square of all demonstrators.
Few had expected tens of thousands to join the election-night protest, which Lukashenko had made clear would be dispersed by force.
The question remained of whether the opposition had the momentum to maintain pressure on Lukashenko or whether Sunday's violence would effectively put an end to the opposition's hopes.
"We had a peaceful protest and it is the authorities who used force," said Marat Titovets, a 40-year-old engineeer. "After Lukashenko spilled blood, he cannot remain in power."
Leading opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was beaten by riot police while leading a few hundred of his supporters to the demonstration and was hospitalized, according to his wife. His left eye was bruised, his nose was bleeding and he was left nauseated and unable to speak, Olga Neklyayeva told the Associated Press.
After the polls closed, thousands of opposition activists converged as planned on October Square, but most of the square had been flooded to make an ice skating rink and pop music boomed from loudspeakers.
The protesters then set off along a main avenue toward Independence Square, where parliament and the main government buildings are located, stopping outside the Central Election Commission.
Russia and the European Union have been closely monitoring the election, having offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction.
Signs that Lukashenko is leaning toward the West would be a moral victory for countries that have long criticized his harsh rule. For Russia, a return to the fold would bolster Moscow's desire to remain the power broker in former Soviet regions.
In casting his ballot, Lukashenko expressed confidence that he would win a fourth term. He denounced the planned opposition rally as being led by "bandits and saboteurs" and proclaimed that it would not take place.
"Don't worry, nobody is going to be on the square tonight," Lukashenko said while voting with his 6-year-old son, Kolya.
But thousands turned out.
Nearly a quarter of the 7 million registered voters went to the polls in five days of early voting last week, according to the Central Election Commission.
The opposition and election observers say early voting allows for ballot stuffing as boxes are poorly guarded and voting precincts are poorly monitored.
Lukashenko, a 56-year-old former collective firm manager, maintains a quasi-Soviet state in the country of 10 million, allowing no independent broadcast media, stifling dissent and keeping about 80 percent of industry under state control.
- Associated Press
Jim Heintz and Maria Danilova contributed to this report.