Belarus president re-elected, others cry fraud

MINSK, Belarus - The authoritarian leader of Belarus was declared Friday the winner of an election condemned by international monitors and his challengers, as police rounded up carol-singing protesters near the prison where most of the challengers are held.

The Central Election Commission said President Alexander Lukashenko won 79.6 percent of Sunday's vote. His nearest challenger, Andrei Sannikov, got 2.4 percent - and was beaten and jailed after the vote along with six other presidential hopefuls and hundreds of protesters.

Club-wielding riot police dispersed and beat 10,000 demonstrators protesting voting fraud Sunday.

Representatives of the opposition candidates rejected the official results. Sannikov's representative, Yuri Khadyko, urged the election agency to void the vote because of fraud and call a new one, but the commission ignored the demand.

Sannikov and his wife, a prominent journalist, are still jailed. Policemen tried to take their three-year-old son and put him into an orphanage, but his grandmother went into hiding with the boy, the Vyasna rights center said Friday.

International observers and Western governments have accused Lukashenko of using fraudulent counting and violence against opposition protesters to keep himself in power. "A monstrous system of falsification has been created in this country, and you are all accomplices of that," Ales Lagvinets, representing another opposition candidate, Grigory Kostusev, told the commission.

Late Friday, a dozen protesters sang carols and lit candles in front of the prison in central Minsk where most of the jailed candidates and activists are being held. Within minutes, riot police detained the protesters, forcing them into police trucks.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has served three terms and become the longest-standing current in Europe. The 56-year old strongman allows no independent broadcast media, keeps 80 percent of the country's industry under Soviet-style state control and suppresses opposition with police raids and pressure.

Russia has provided Belarus with cheap oil and gas, a policy that keeps the former Soviet republic of 10 million bordering Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic nations within its sphere of influence. Once regarded as the Kremlin's obedient if loudmouthed ally, in recent years Lukashenko often has been truculent toward Moscow, even alleging that Russia is financing his opponents.

One of the arrested presidential hopefuls, Vladimir Neklyayev, was badly beaten during the rally, which protested the election results. His wife said Friday that she and his attorney have been denied access to Neklyayev in an effort to conceal the extent of his injuries. "This is the lawlessness of authorities that are afraid to show the horrible condition my husband is in," Olga Neklyayeva said.


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