US and EU condemn mass arrests of Belarus opposition

Minsk - Belarusian authorities on Monday carried out a wide-ranging crackdown on government opponents amidst Western criticism about the authorities' use of force following the presidential vote at the weekend that returned Aleksander Lukashenko to power.

Uniformed police and plain clothes KGB agents arrested more than 1,000 members of the opposition Sunday, authorities and opposition leaders confirmed.

Seven of the nine of candidates who ran against Lukashenko in the Sunday's poll were in police custody Monday morning, the Belapan news agency reported.

Two of the candidates, Vladimir Neklayev and Vitali Rymaschevski, received hospital treatment for injuries inflicted by police clubs during demonstrations in central Minsk that turned violent.

'This cowardly attack against a defenseless presidential candidate is shocking and shameful,' said Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, in a statement. 'I am shocked.'

More than 20,000 members of the Belarusian opposition gathered in the capital Minsk on Sunday evening to protest against alleged voter fraud in Lukashenko's favour.

Official ballot counts showed Lukashenko had won a fourth term in office, with 79.7 per cent of the vote nationwide, according to a government statement.

Voter turnout was heavy, at 90.4 per cent, the Central Election Committee said.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss favouring Soviet-style government, had banned public demonstrations before the vote and threatened use of force if the opposition defied him.

Police moved in to break up the crowd late Sunday night after some demonstrators attempted to break into the Central Election Committee building and adjacent government offices, breaking windows and tearing doors off hinges.

Lidia Eremoshina, head of the Central Election Committee and inside the building at the time, described the crowd's assault as 'absolutely terrifying.'

Police squads wearing armour and carrying shields cleared Minsk's independence square in less than an hour. YouTube images showed police savagely clubbing and kicking protesters too slow to escape.

Arrests of opposition leaders and activist and raids of some of their homes continued through Monday morning, according to news reports.

Opposition spokesmen estimated the number of anti-Lukashenko activists arrested in the nationwide action at more than 2,000 activists.

Interior ministry officials said 'several hundred' persons were in police detention in connection with the Minsk riots.

Uniformed and plain clothes police had shut down the headquarters of the opposition group Belarusian Christian Democracy on Monday morning and were removing computers from the premises, spokesman Denis Sadovskiy told Belapan.

A statement released by the US embassy in Minsk said Washington 'is especially concerned with the extreme use of force by the authorities, including the beating of opposition candidates ... and journalists.'

The centre of Minsk was quiet on Monday morning, as sanitation crews were picking up debris. The police presence was heavy.


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