Belarus protestors, police clash in disputed polls

Belarus police Sunday used noise grenades and truncheons to break up opposition protests against elections which exit polls predicated would be won by President Alexander Lukashenko, wounding one of his challengers.

Lukashenko earlier warned the opposition against holding protests as Belarus voted in disputed polls expected to hand its unpredictable strongman a fourth term in office.

But the sidelined opposition candidates had warned they would try to muster a large protest on the central square in the capital Minsk after polls closed at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT).

Anti-riot police intercepted 200 protestors, letting off noise grenades and beating several demonstrators with truncheons, an AFP correspondent reported. The protestors then attempted to flee and hide.

However the other columns of protestors were attempting to converge on the square, around which there were already several thousands of demonstrators, AFP correspondents said.

Profile of Alexander Lukashenko

They waved Belarus and EU flags and shouted "For Freedom!".

According to an exit poll for Belarus public ONT television, Lukashenko won 72.2 percent of the vote while opposition candidates Andrei Sannikov and Vladimir Nekliayev won 6.1 percent each.

Lukashenko needed to garner 50 percent of the vote to claim outright victory in the first round.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic of 10 million for the past 16 years, is running against nine opposition candidates in a battle that was seen as fairer than in previous years.

Lukashenko warned his opponents against protesting as he cast his ballot in the snow-blanketed capital with his six-year-old son Kolya, the child of an extra-marital relationship who the president describes as his "talisman".

"What is awaiting supporters of the protest -- read our laws. Everything will be in strict accordance with the law," Lukashenko said. "Do not worry -- there will not be anyone on the square tonight."

To prevent possible rallies, the authorities turned the central Oktyabrskaya Square into a giant ice rink, decorating it with a huge Christmas tree.

The opposition candidates have already declared the elections fraudulent, despite being given more freedom to campaign and access to national airtime for each candidate than in previous polls in 2001 and 2006.

"Such a high number of candidates automatically means a run-off," said Sannikov. "If they tell us there is no run-off it will be deception and lies and we will protest."

The opposition has said they feared the results would be skewed in favour of Lukashenko and denounced the controversial practice of early voting, which saw 23 percent cast their ballots before election day.

Belarus Internet users massively complained on Twitter of being unable to access their email and opposition sites like popular news site Charter97 which was set up by Sannikov.

By 4:00 pm local time (1400 GMT) 75.8 percent of more than seven million registered voters cast their ballots, the Central Election Commission said.

"They made us vote early," said Olga, a student who signed up to act as an independent observer at a polling station.

"On Saturday we counted 50 people who came in to vote, but then there were 180 ballots in the box, and today the box disappeared," said Olga, who declined to give her last name.

Lukashenko has in recent months sought to move Minsk away from Russia's orbit, repeatedly sniping at Moscow which shot back with a muck-raking television documentary on him called "The Godfather".


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