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Last updated: December 20, 2010 8:21 pm

Hundreds arrested in Belarus protests

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Policemen arrest an activist during a rally in Minsk©AFP

Policemen arrest an activist of Mlady Front, a Belarus youth organisation, during a rally in Minsk on Monday

Police in Belarus arrested at least seven of nine opposition presidential candidates and held hundreds more activists as President Alexander Lukashenko cracked down on protesters who had challenged the official results of Sunday’s elections.

Western observers said that the vote, in which Mr Lukashenko secured a fourth presidential term, did not meet international standards, although it was seen as an improvement on previous elections because the opposition did have some access to mass media.

“This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed. The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserved better,” Tony Lloyd, head of the short-term observer mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, told a news conference. A group of observers from the former Soviet Union found the election free and fair.

The White House on Monday called on Belarus to release all presidential candidates and protesters detained in the wake of what Washington called a flawed election.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement that the US strongly condemned Belarus for the police crackdown.

“We call for the immediate release of all presidential candidates and the hundreds of protesters who were detained on December 19 and 20. The United States cannot accept as legitimate the results of the presidential election announced by the Belarusian Central Election Commission December 20,” Mr Gibbs said.

A visibly angry Mr Lukashenko used a news conference to denounce an opposition demonstration on Sunday evening that saw more than 10,000 people march through the centre of the capital before rallying in front of parliament. Some people tried to break into a government building but were repelled by riot police, who then attacked the crowd.

“What we saw yesterday was not democracy, it was banditry,” said Mr Lukashenko, adding that 639 people had been arrested and promising that “there will be no revolution in ­Belarus”.

According to the Belarusian electoral commission, Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, received 79.7 per cent of the vote, while the nine opposition candidates were far behind, with Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister who is under arrest, receiving the most, at 2.6 per cent.

Although Mr Lukashenko can claim victory, the election has turned into a public relations disaster.

He has stayed in power in recent years by manoeuvring between Russia and the European Union without losing his independence. But after Sunday's beatings and arrests, it will be hard for Brussels to ignore the nature of Mr Lukashenko’s regime.

Belarus’s actions were denounced on Monday by Poland, Germany and other EU countries, with Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, calling for opposition activists to be released.

That will probably force him closer to Russia, which this month sent a message of support by striking a deal to continue duty-free crude oil exports to Belarus, vital to the future of the country’s inefficient state industries. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, called the election Belarus’s internal affair.

David Marples, a Belarus scholar at the University of Alberta, said: “The Europeans have to stand back and ask themselves if this is the kind of government they want to do business with.”

Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet and presidential candidate, was beaten as he tried to walk to the rally, his spokeswoman said. He was taken to hospital but hours later was bundled out by a group of men and has not been seen since.

Mr Lukashenko said the incident was a “provocation”, and said Mr Neklyayev and other candidates were in jail facing questions from prosecutors.

“If he is guilty he will answer for it,” said Mr Lukashenko.

Early on Monday police broke into the offices of several human rights organisations, beating up and arresting members, opposition activists said.

With most opposition leaders under arrest, ordinary people cowed by police brutality and the capital Minsk covered in snow, there was no sign of more protest rallies.

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