THOUSANDS OF Belarusians massed last night in the centre of the capital, Minsk, to protest against an election that exit polls suggested was won by autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko with almost 80 per cent of votes.
Shortly after voting ended and the exit poll findings were revealed, Belarusian riot police moved against some 200 supporters of rival candidate Vladimir Neklyayev as they made their way towards Minsk's October Square to demonstrate against what they called blatant ballot fraud.
Before they could reach the square, which city authorities had turned into an ice-rink in a bid to deter protests, they were confronted by police wielding truncheons and firing stun grenades.
Opposition officials said Mr Neklyayev (65), a poet whom opinion polls identified ws Mr Lukashenko's closest election challenger, was injured in the police operation and carried from the scene by supporters.
"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," said Yulia Rimashevskaya, an aide to Mr Neklyayev.
Later, several thousand people gathered on October Square without immediately being dispersed by the watching police.
Mr Lukashenko has applied crushing pressure to political opponents and independent media during 16 years at the helm of his country of 10 million people, and has been accused of involvement in the disappearance of several leading critics.
When voting yesterday, he warned that demonstrations against the conduct and outcome of the election would not be tolerated.
"What is awaiting supporters of the protest - read our laws. Everything will be in strict accordance with the law," he said. "Do not worry - there will not be anyone on the square tonight." Nine candidates ran against Mr Lukashenko, and Mr Neklyayev and several others urged supporters to gather at October Square, and to bring sand and salt to help them keep their footing on the newly created ice rink.
"Such a high number of candidates automatically means a run-off," said another opposition candidate, Andrei Sannikov. "If they tell us there is no run-off it will be deception and lies and we will protest." A run-off would be required if no candidate won more than 50 per cent of votes, something made extremely unlikely by Mr Lukashenko's tight grip on all levers of power and his widespread popularity among older Belarusians and those living in the provinces, who see him as a guarantor of stability and a defender of their sovereignty in the face of Russian and western pressure.
After months of bitter sniping, Mr Lukashenko mended fences with Russia on the eve of the election, and secured an energy deal with Moscow that will save billions of euro for the hard-pressed Belarusian economy.
Belarus has been a generally loyal bulwark for Russia against European Union and Nato expansion, while Brussels and Washington have sought to ease the country out of Moscow's sphere of influence by suspending sanctions against Mr Lukashenko and hinting at the offer of financial help in return for greater respect for democracy.
"The EU makes a routine mistake of thinking it can mould a democrat out of a dictator," Mr Neklyayev said before the election. "But here there is simply not the material for a sculptor."