Lukashenko sworn in for third term

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in for a third term Saturday following an election denounced by the West as undemocratic and fraudulent.

Lukashenko took his oath during a pomp-filled ceremony attended by several thousand officials and lawmakers at the Palace of the Republic, a huge concrete Soviet-era palace of congresses. He received blessing from the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church and top officials. The audience hailed Lukashenko with a standing ovation.

In his brief speech after inauguration, a somber-looking Lukashenko accused the West of fomenting unrest in the ex-Soviet nation. "They want to humiliate our nation and turn it into another testing ground for a color revolution," he said in a reference to protests that helped oust unpopular governments in other ex-Soviet nations.

The building in downtown Minsk was tightly encircled by police, who also blocked the public from entering other central areas of the Belarusian capital in an apparent effort to prevent the opposition from mounting rallies.

Following the inauguration ceremony, Lukashenko donned a military uniform and went out to the adjacent square to receive an oath of allegiance from the military and security troops. "We won't allow anyone to speak to us in a posture of force," Lukashenko told the troops.

On Friday, Belarusian riot police broke up a demonstration by dozens of opposition activists in the Minsk central square that was the epicenter of protests against Lukashenko's re-election last month.

Lukashenko has faced international condemnation of the March 19 election, which he won with 83 percent of the vote according to official results.

Lukashenko lashed out at his foes, accusing them of being manipulated by the West.

"Belarusians can't be strangled, they can't be manipulated," said the president, who has ruled his former Soviet nation since 1994 and has been labeled Europe's last dictator for his relentless crackdown on dissent.

The main opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich, who received only around 6 percent of votes, has alleged widespread fraud.

"Lukashenko grabbed victory through force and lies," Milinkevich told The Associated Press Saturday in a telephone interview from neighboring Lithuania. "The civilized world doesn't recognize Lukashenko, and he will find it hard to convince the Belarusian people of his victory."

Thousands of people demonstrated in central Minsk after the election to protest the result, and hundreds of opposition protesters were jailed after the breakup of a protest tent camp in Oktyabrskaya square and a violent clash between demonstrators and riot police.

Another opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin, who also ran to challenge Lukashenko, has been in jail since leading an opposition march last month. He was charged with organizing mass disturbances.

Kozulin's wife, Irina, told the AP that he sent yet another appeal to the nation's Supreme Court Saturday demanding that it invalidate the election results.

The European Union is expected next week to approve a visa ban on 31 top Belarus officials including Lukashenko in protest at his re-election.

Lukashenko, who despises the West, relies on political support and cheap energy resources from Russia.

However, the Russian state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant turned the heat on Lukashenko quickly after his re-election, announcing a plan to raise gas prices for Belarus to market levels -- a move widely interpreted as an attempt to bargain for control of the Belarusian gas pipeline network that also carries Russian gas to European customers.