Opposition leader hospitalised as police break up election day protest at claims of vote rigging.
Police in Belarus have broken up an election day march by opposition supporters in the capital Minsk, beating Vladimir Neklyavev, its leader, eyewitnesses have said.
The violence came as exit polls suggested Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus' authoritarian leader, was almost certain to win the election amid claims of voter intimidation.
A press spokeswoman for Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet and one of the main opposition candidates running against Lukashenko, said he had been taken to hospital unconscious and was being treated for head injuries after being beaten in Minsk's October Square.
"He was beaten. He is unconscious and was taken to hospital. Initial assessment is that he has suffered a frontal head injury of medium seriousness," Yulia Rimashevskaya, Neklyayev's press aide told the Reuters news agency.
Lukashenko had earlier denounced the rally, saying that the opposition were led by "bandits and saboteurs" and had pledged to prevent it from taking place. As he cast his vote, Lukashenko said: "Don't worry, nobody is going to be on the square tonight."
As the country went to the polls, opposition leaders and rights activists reported that more than 30 people campaigning against the president had been detained.
Al Jazeera's Neave Barker, reporting from Minsk, said that the rally had been planned by the opposition ahead of the polls to call for fresh elections.
"The opposition, perhaps sensing defeat was imminent, said before the election they wanted to come here to call for new elections in which they would be able to campaign with as much freedom as Alexander Lukashenko," he said.
Earlier Neklyayev had questioned the credibility of the election. "When the representatives of one of the candidates get arrested on the orders of another candidate, that cannot be called an election,'' he said.
Concerns have been raised by international observers over the poll. Nearly a quarter of the 7 million registered voters went to the polls in five days of early voting last week, which observers say allows for ballot stuffing as ballot boxes are poorly guarded and voting precincts are scarcely monitored.
'Europe's last dictatorship'
Belarus is often referred to as Europe's last dictatorship. Lukashenko allows no independent broadcast media and has kept more than 80 per cent of industry under state control. In an effort to entice Belarus out of its quasi-soviet pariah status, the EU has offered 3 billion euros in aid if elections are judged to be free and fair.
In the 2006 elections, the opposition launched a protest and occupied the main square for five days. This year, the square has been flooded to make an ice skating rink, but that did not stop the opposition from turning out to register their anger at what they say is another stolen election.
A pro-government exit poll showed that Lukashenko won re-election by 79.1 per cent of the vote, while his closest challenger, Grigor Kostusev, won 4.2 percent, the EcooM research centre said shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m.
Al Jazeera and agencies