Police clashed with protesters and beat one opposition candidate unconscious as tens of thousands rallied in Minsk against suspected fraud in Sunday’s presidential election. Exit polls gave incumbent Alexander Lukashenko more than 70% of the vote.
AFP - Tens of thousands of protestors massed in Minsk Sunday against elections that exit polls said were swept by President Alexander Lukashenko, attacking government buildings and clashing with police.
According to an exit poll for Belarus public ONT television, Lukashenko won 72.2 percent of the vote which, if confirmed, would give him a crushing outright first-round victory.
But the nine opposition candidates alleged fraud and summoned a mass protest in defiance of warnings from Lukashenko -- once slammed as Europe's last dictator by Washington.
Listening to speeches by five opposition candidates condemning the polls, they waved Belarussian and EU flags and shouted "For Freedom!", "Down with the Gulag" and "Long Live Belarus", AFP correspondents at the scene reported.
"This was a farce and not an election," candidate Yaroslav Romanchuk told the protestors. "The authorities had the chance to extend us a hand but again they did not."
Lukashenko, seeking a fourth term in office, earlier warned the opposition against holding protests and the police took hard measures against an initial group of demonstrators.
That group had massed in the capital's main Oktyabrskaya Square where the authorities had incongruously erected a huge ice rink and Christmas tree in a bid to discourage protestors.
Profile of Lukashenko, 'Maverick' President
They then marched on Independence Square to the southwest, their numbers swelling to tens of thousands, where several protestors smashed the doors of the government building and election headquarters.
Teams of anti-riot police however repelled the move, forming a human chain to prevent the protestors from moving further and keeping them at a distance of several metres from the building.
Police then brought in reinforcements, encircling the main group of demonstrators and telling them to put their hands up. Hundreds of protestors were arrested and led away to police vans, an AFP correspondent said.
Vladimir Nekliayev, one of the nine challengers seeking to unseat Lukashenko, was badly wounded in the initial clashes.
In the first clashes, anti-riot police intercepted 200 demonstrators, letting off noise grenades and beating several with truncheons, an AFP correspondent reported. The protestors then attempted to flee and hide.
An ambulance arrived at Nekliayev's headquarters to take him to hospital and officials in his entourage said he had suffered a serious concussion.
"This is where Belarus received its independence in 1991 and today this is where Lukashenko's dictatorship will fall," opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov told the crowd on Independence Square.
According to the exit poll, opposition candidates Sannikov and Nekliayev won 6.1 percent of the vote each, while Romanchuk garnered 3.3 percent. Opposition officials said they believed Lukashenko had in fact received less than 50 percent.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic of 10 million for the past 16 years, warned his opponents against protesting as he cast his ballot in earlier with his six-year-old son Kolya.
"What is awaiting supporters of the protest -- read our laws. Everything will be in strict accordance with the law," Lukashenko said. "Do not worry -- there will not be anyone on the square tonight."
The opposition candidates have already declared the elections fraudulent, despite being given more freedom to campaign and access to national airtime for each candidate than in previous polls in 2001 and 2006.
The opposition has denounced the controversial practice of early voting, which saw 23 percent cast their ballots before election day.
By 6:00 pm local time (1600 GMT) 84.1 percent of more than seven million registered voters had cast their ballots, the Central Election Commission said.
Lukashenko has in recent months sought to move Minsk away from Russia's orbit, repeatedly sniping at Moscow which shot back with a muck-raking television documentary on him called "The Godfather".
He has also sought closer ties with the European Union and has relaxed controls on the opposition in the campaign in a move that appeared aimed at impressing international election observers.
Date created : 2010-12-19