By Richard Balmforth and Matt Robinson, Reuters
MINSK - Police in Belarus beat demonstrators with batons and rounded up opposition leaders in a violent crackdown after an election on Sunday that was certain to return President Alexander Lukashenko for a fourth term.
Up to 10,000 people marched through the snow-bound capital Minsk as voting ended and a pro-government pollster forecast a landslide victory for Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic with a tight grip since 1994.
For more than two hours, led mainly by opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, they massed on Independence Square, chanting "Out!," "Long live Belarus!" and other anti-Lukashenko slogans, The turnout marked a significant challenge to Lukashenko's rule.
Then riot police waded in, beating people with batons, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. Some protesters threw stones and snowballs at police.
Several people were left sprawled on the ground, including an elderly woman who had been hit on the head. Others were bundled into police cars. An aide to Sannikov, 56, said he believed the opposition leader had been arrested. The opposition reported at least two other candidates detained.
Sannikov had earlier told the crowd: 'Down with the rule of Lukashenko, freedom for Belarus!" The opposition says Lukashenko rigged the vote.
The European Union is watching closely, weighing how far to engage with the country of 10 million on its eastern flank, amid tension between Lukashenko and chief benefactor Russia.
Earlier on Sunday, another opposition candidate, Vladimir Neklyayev, was taken to hospital with a head injury after police dispersed a column of his supporters heading to join the protests that began in central October Square, a Reuters eyewitness said.
Black-clothed security forces fired shots into the air and launched stun grenades after breaking up Neklyayev's group. His wife, Olga, said police had later taken him from the hospital.
An aide to nationalist candidate Grigory Kostusev said the 53-year-old had been stopped in his car and arrested.
The head of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, said the incident involving Neklyayev was unacceptable. "This cowardly attack on a defenceless candidate for President of Belarus is outrageous and disgraceful," he said in a statement.
CHALLENGE TO LUKASHENKO
In the main rally, some demonstrators broke the glass doors to the government building but were restrained by others in the crowd, a Reuters reporter said.
Veteran leader Lukashenko, 56, had earlier scoffed at the opposition's plans to protest against the conduct of the election. He predicted nobody would turn out.
An exit poll by pro-government research group EcooM gave him 79.1 percent of the vote, which, if confirmed, would hand him a fourth term in power.
He has ruled for 16 years, during which Belarus's command economy has been propped up by energy subsidies from chief ally Russia. The country serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO and a transit route for Russian gas heading to Europe.
But relations with Moscow have been on the rocks in recent years, and the moustachioed former state farm director has been courting the West.
The European Union has dangled the prospect of financial aid if Sunday's vote is deemed fair. It will take its cue from monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who report back on Monday.
The OSCE had said earlier in the day that the election already appeared "better" than in 2006.
But as polls neared closing, police blocked a column led by Neklyayev that was heading to October Square. The 64-year-old poet was beaten in chaotic scenes.
"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, his press aide, told Reuters.
Photographers and cameramen were forced to the ground to stop them capturing the police action against Neklyayev and his supporters, a Reuters witness said.
The Interior Ministry gave a different account, saying unarmed police had encountered an angry crowd. "The crowd moved towards the police, with the result that some police officers were injured and hospitalized," a spokesman said.
One opposition figure told protesters on October Square that, according to an unofficial opposition exit poll, Lukashenko won only 30.7 % against Neklyayev's 18 %. He called for a second round of voting.
State security forces gave a warning on the eve of the vote that they would crack down on attempts to "whip up tension."
Lukashenko crushed dissent harshly in the early years of his rule, jailing opponents and muzzling the media. He was dubbed Europe's 'last dictator' by the Bush administration.