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Thousands Denounce Poll Results

MINSK -- Several thousand people gathered on a square in central Minsk on Sunday evening after Belarus' main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, declared that he would not recognize the results of Sunday's presidential election and called for a peaceful protest.

The protesters chanted "Long Live Belarus!" and booed when a large video screen showed a live statement from the head of the Central Elections Commission, who hailed the vote as a success with minimal violations.

The commission chief, Lidia Yermoshina, said President Alexander Lukashenko won 92.2 percent of the vote in hospitals and military units, where about 1.2 percent of the nation's eligible voters cast their ballots. She said overall results were unlikely to differ greatly from those numbers.

Despite the government ban on protests Sunday, there was no immediate move by police to disperse the crowd. While police closely guarded the hulking building facing the square and temporarily housing the election commission, they did not surround protesters.

About 5,000 people were on Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad when polls closed at 8 p.m. Some waved a national flag that Lukashenko banned in favor of a Soviet-style replacement, as well as European Union flags.

People blew horns and shouted "Mi-lin-ke-vich!" -- echoing the much larger crowds on Kiev's Independence Square in Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, which has inspired the opposition in neighboring Belarus.

Exit-poll results released just hours after voting began projected Lukashenko would win a new five-year term with more than 80 percent of the vote.

"People will laugh at those figures. In Poland, people began laughing at communist authorities and this is when Solidarity won. We are getting there," Milinkevich said at a news conference after casting his ballot earlier in the day. "I won't be surprised if someone allows himself to claim 120 percent."

Lukashenko has vowed to prevent the kind of mass rallies that helped bring opposition leaders to power in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan following disputed elections, raising the threat of a forceful government response.

The use or threat of force neutralized opposition efforts to protest vote results in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan last year, and a government crackdown in Uzbekistan left hundreds dead.

Belarus has mounted a campaign of threats and allegations of violent, foreign-backed overthrow plots that its opponents say is aimed at frightening people off the streets and justifying the potential use of force against protesters.

The Russian head of an election observer mission from the Commonwealth of Independent States, Vladimir Rushailo, said on state television that the monitors saw no serious violations.

An observer team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose assessments that elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were seriously flawed galvanized protesters there, is to release its preliminary findings Monday.

After voting, Lukashenko dismissed any criticism of the election. "We in Belarus are conducting the election for ourselves," he said.

An exit poll by the EcooM organization, which first released results at 10 a.m., later indicated that as of 4 p.m., Lukashenko had 82.1 percent of the vote and Milinkevich had just 4.4 percent. Most countries prohibit the release of exit poll results until voting closes.

Exit polling by another group, the Belarussian Committee of Youth Organizations, gave Lukashenko 84.2 percent and Milinkevich 3.1 percent.

(The Moscow Times 20.iii.06)

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