By YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press
MINSK, BELARUS - Thousands of opposition supporters in Belarus tried to storm the main government building to protest what they claim was large-scale vote-rigging in Sunday's presidential election, but they were driven back and beaten by riot police. Exit polls showed the authoritarian leader won reelection with 72 to 82 percent of the vote.
Up to 40,000 opposition activists rallied in central Minsk to call for longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko to step down. It was the largest opposition rally since mass street protests against Lukashenko in 1996, but it was over within hours. By late Sunday, police had cleared Independence Square of all demonstrators.
Few had expected tens of thousands to join the election-night protest, which Lukashenko had made clear would be dispersed by force. The question remained of whether the opposition had the momentum to maintain pressure on Lukashenko or whether Sunday's violence would put an end to the opposition's hopes.
"We had a peaceful protest, and it is the authorities who used force," said Marat Titovets, a 40-year-old engineeer. "After Lukashenko spilled blood, he cannot remain in power."
Leading opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was beaten by riot police while leading a few hundred of his supporters to the demonstration and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, according to his wife. Another opposition candidate, Vitaly Rymashevsky, was beaten in clashes with riot police by the government building. Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes with the police.
Russia and the European Union are closely monitoring the election, having offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction.
In casting his ballot, Lukashenko expressed confidence that he would win a fourth term. "Don't worry, nobody is going to be on the square tonight," he said while voting with his 6-year-old son, Kolya.