Fri, Mar 24, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Opposition leader rallies protesters

UNITED Alexander Milinkevich called on protesters demonstrating against the re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to stand together


The leader of the Belarusian opposition urged solidarity in the face of a growing crackdown on government critics protesting the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

"We must defend one another," Alexander Milinkevich told demonstrators on Wednesday amid arrests and harassment targeting protesters gathered day and night on a freezing downtown square to push for a new vote without Lukashenko, whose 12-year-rule has been denounced in the West as Europe's last dictatorship.

"The state machine is mighty, and it is trying to destroy us," he told a crowd of about 4,000 in Oktyabrskaya Square, where rallies every evening since the election on Sunday have swollen the ranks of a core of several hundred protesters maintaining a round-the-clock vigil at a tent camp.

While police have not moved to disperse protesters, they have sought to lower the numbers with a campaign of arrests and harassment similar to the conduct Western nations say made the election wildly unfair.

State news agency Belta yesterday reported that Lukashenko has been declared the official winner of the presidential election.

Lukashenko won a new five-year term with 83 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, received 6.1 percent, Central Election Commission secretary Nikolai Lozovik was quoted as saying by Belta.

The numbers differed only slightly from preliminary results issued a day after Sunday's vote.

The human rights center Vyasna said that 150 people have been detained in connection with the protests against the election, some of them released but others tried and sentenced -- usually to a week or two behind bars.

Andrei Dynko, the editor of an independent newspaper who was detained on Tuesday on the way to the square, was sentenced to 10 days in jail on Wednesday for swearing. Vadim Alexandrovich, editor of the paper Belarus i Rynok, received the same sentence on the same charge.

Showing bruises on his face and chest, protester Mikhail Avdeyev said three riot police beat him up early on Wednesday when he left the tent camp to buy cigarettes.

"They beat me up, but I am still standing here for Belarus," he said.

"The authorities are violating the law, they have organized large-scale repression," Milinkevich said. "In these conditions, we are trying to do everything we can to achieve the truth."

He said he was concerned that people are being fired from their jobs or expelled from universities for opposing the government.

The persistent protest is unprecedented in this former Soviet nation where Lukashenko has been silencing dissent since his first election in 1994, but opposition leaders acknowledge the crowd in a corner of the square is not big enough to force a new election.

Gearing up for a major test of strength, Milinkevich emphasized his call for protesters to come out in force on Saturday, the anniversary of the declaration of the first, short-lived independent Belarusian republic in 1918.

"There must be many of us. Invite your friends, invite your relatives. On the 25th we must be together," he told the crowd, starting a chant of "Together! Together!" that was taken up by the people in the square.

The nightly rallies attract 2,000 to 7,000 people -- fewer than the 10,000 who came out on election night -- and dwindle as night deepens, leaving a few hundred at the tent camp.

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