By Valery Kalinovsky (AFP)
MINSK - Belarus on Tuesday jailed 600 demonstrators detained during a mass rally against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, defying fierce Western condemnation of the bloody crackdown.
Police officials said the protesters would be held for up to 15 days while prosecutors probed their alleged involvement in "organising mass disturbances" -- a crime that carries a sentence of up to 15 years.
"It is not a fact that all of them will be released after 15 days," Minsk police spokesman Alexander Lastovsky told AFP.
Lukashenko vowed Monday to come down hard on all those responsible for taking part in Sunday's unauthorised demonstration against his regime.
"That is it," Lukashenko declared in a nationally-televised press conference. "Our country will have no more senseless, muddle-headed democracy."
"I warned you," he added. "Kids -- you are messing with the wrong guy."
The wave of arrests left relatives searching for loved ones in the city's prisons, with groups scouring the long list of names posted on the walls of one facility and waiting outside its entrance gate in the hope of receiving any news.
Once labelled the last dictator of Europe by Washington, Lukashenko was re-elected to a fourth term Sunday with nearly 80 percent of the ballot on Soviet-style turnout of more than 90 percent.
His nearest rival received less than three percent of the vote in an election that the challengers vowed to contest even before the results became official.
Seven of Lukashenko's nine election rivals were arrested in what appears to be a massive crackdown on the opposition, with five candidates beaten up by riot police.
Three of them -- Ales Mikhalevich, Vladimir Nekliaev and Andrei Sannikov -- were being held by the KGB, while two others -- Rygor Katusev and Dmitry Uss -- were released under orders not to leave the city, their offices said.
Two more candidates -- Nikolai Statkevich and Vitaly Rymanshevsky -- are still believed to be in police detention.
The Belarussian justice ministry also threatened to ban parties and movements that took part in the protests, with the warning affecting organisations headed by two of the challengers.
The clampdown came despite signals in the last months that Lukashenko was seeking to smooth his isolated former Soviet country's frayed relations with both the European Union and Russia.
EU officials had promised to offer Belarus up to 3.5 billion dollars in loans should it stage a free and fair election. And Russia resolved most of its trade conflicts with its smaller neighbour in the run-up to the vote.
But while Russia refused to condemn the violence, with President Dmitry Medvedev calling it an "internal matter" for Belarus, Belarus was roundly admonished by both the US and the European Union.
"The United States strongly condemns the actions that the government of Belarus has taken to undermine the democratic process," President Barack Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
Three heavyweight US senators warned Belarus it would pay "a very heavy cost" for the crackdown.
"Having pursued engagement with Belarus in recent months, the United States and our allies should now consider a tougher approach," Senators John Kerry, John McCain and Joe Lieberman said in a joint statement.
The European Union's top diplomat Catherine Ashton meanwhile called on the regime to "immediately release" the opposition leaders.
But the authorities said they were were in fact being lenient and had let "a lot of people" go without prosecution.
"We released several foreign nationals, including journalists," said top Minsk police official Leonid Farmagei.
The Belarussian Journalists' Association said that 25 media representatives had been arrested in all. At least four reporters were known to have been jailed for up to 15 days while their cases were being studied.
The KGB was also holding two reporters -- Irina Halip, a journalist with Moscow's opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper, and Natalia Radina, a worker with Belarus' Charter97 news website, one of the campaign offices said.