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Belarus election ends in protests, police crackdown

Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term by a significant majority, but large protests by the opposition and a harsh police response signal this could be a difficult term.

By Correspondent / December 20, 2010

Riot police disperse opposition supporters during a rally denouncing the results of presidential elections in Belarus near the parliament building in central Minsk, Dec. 19.

Vladimir Nikolsky/Reuters

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Moscow

Following a night of violence and mass arrests in Minsk, Belarus, the state-dominated media on Monday declared that Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarussian leader who's often described as "Europe's last dictator," has been reelected to an unprecedented fourth term with a 79.7 percent majority of the votes. None of his eight opponents won more than 3 percent.

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After state-conducted exit polls indicated the scope of Mr. Lukashenko's triumph Sunday night, an estimated 20,000 opposition supporters attempted to rally on Minsk's central Independence Square to protest what they allege to be systematic fraud in the electoral process – as they did under almost identical circumstances in previous presidential polls four years ago.

But this time, authorities reacted with a harshness unseen in the past. An attempt by some opposition supporters to storm the Central Electoral Commission headquarters failed to get past massed ranks of police. Special riot squads then charged into the crowd, using batons and stun grenades, arresting 600 and injuring dozens.

During the night, Belarus's KGB security forces swept through Minsk, arresting six opposition candidates along with scores of their supporters in an operation that continued in full swing Monday. Two of the candidates, Nikolai Statkevich and Vladimir Neklyaev, claimed they were beaten by special police before being taken to prison. The arrested leaders could face jail terms of up to 15 years.

"It's possible that some opposition forces deliberately provoked the authorities in order invite a tough response," says Svetlana Kalinkina, editor of the independent Narodnaya Volya weekly newspaper. "The leaders are all under arrest, so we can't get any explanations from them. But what I don't get is why the police, even if it's their job to impose order, had to use such brutal methods, leaving so many people badly injured."

Yaroslav Romanchuk, candidate of the United Civil Party, was out when the KGB came to his home in the middle of the night and thus avoided arrest. Reached by phone Monday, Mr. Romanchuk said the attempt by some protesters to assault a government building was unfortunate, but it doesn't justify the massive crackdown that's now under way.

"This is a serious cleanup operation, and almost all leaders of opposition groups have already been arrested," he says. "We fear the authorities intend to liquidate all political parties. I really hope the situation doesn't turn tragic."

Belarussian authorities accuse the opposition of attempting to destabilize the country. But the US Embassy in Minsk issued a statement Monday saying, "we are especially concerned over excessive use of force by the authorities, including the beating and detention of several presidential candidates and violence against journalists and civil society activists."

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