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15,000 Protest Lukashenko in Minsk

MINSK -- Some 15,000 opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko protested in Minsk on Sunday, aiming to revitalize the campaign against the leader whom Western countries have characterized as "Europe's last dictator."

Unlike many opposition demonstrations in previous years, Sunday's ended without large clashes with police. Officers blocked the demonstrators from gathering on the city's main square and dispersed crowds gathered nearby in shoving matches, but the protesters were allowed to march to a site about two kilometers away, where they rallied under close police watch but without interference.

It was the largest opposition rally since an April demonstration that followed the previous month's unprecedented week of continuous protests against Lukashenko.

Sunday's rally sought to regain the momentum the opposition had built up last year, and opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told the crowd that the free world stood behind their efforts.

"We should understand that we are not alone. The democratic world and Europe stand together with us," said Milinkevich, who was the key figure of last year's protests against Lukashenko's disputed re-election to a third term.

"Lukashenko is scared of us. All the police are a sign of his fear," said a 16-year-old demonstrator with his face wrapped in a European Union flag.

March 25 has been a traditional day of demonstration for the opposition, commemorating what they call Freedom Day -- the anniversary of the 1918 declaration of the first, short-lived independent Belarussian state. Last year's demonstration ended with police clubbing demonstrators and arresting hundreds, including unsuccessful presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, who later got 5 1/2 years in prison.

A separate government-sponsored concert and rally took place Sunday.

The opposition said that at least 34 activists had been detained in the run-up to the rally and that about 20 people were detained Sunday.

State television broadcast a news segment Saturday night that warned of administrative fines and possible criminal action for violation of public order, emphasizing that this also included participation in nonsanctioned rallies. The report never directly mentioned the opposition's planned rally, however.

Meanwhile, the EU offered Belarussians encouragement Sunday.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department expressed deep concern over intimidation by Belarussian authorities directed at political leaders, young people and NGO activists.

(The Moscow Times 26.iii.07)

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