By Jan Cienski in Minsk and Reuters
Police in Belarus broke up a march by the opposition and beat its poet leader as President Alexander Lukashenko, the man known as Europe's last dictator, headed for almost certain re-election in a vote on Sunday.
Vladimir Neklyayev, the opposition leader running a distant second to Mr Lukashenko in opinion polls, called the process fraudulent and demanded a new vote. Mr Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994.
"These are fraudulent elections," he said after spoiling his ballot and calling on opposition supporters to gather in central Minsk to protest. "A free vote is impossible under this dictatorship."
But when the demonstrators began heading for the city's October Square they were stopped by police and Mr Neklyayev was severely beaten, according to Reuters. A spokesman for the poet said he had been taken to hospital unconscious and was being treated for head injuries.
Sunday's contest was deemed freer than past elections as, under European Union pressure, Mr Lukashenko has granted his opponents limited access to public television.
Mr Lukashenko has been helped by the fragmented opposition. Nine candidates are running against him.
Election observers monitoring the vote said formal procedures were being followed at the voting stations they visited. "The crucial issue will be the vote count this evening," said Pawel Poncyljusz, a Polish parliamentarian, noting that monitors were usually kept far enough away from the ballot-counting so as to be unable to check whether the procedure was honest.