By Andrei Makhovsky and Matt Robinson
MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus jailed more than 600 opposition activists on Tuesday, ignoring Western criticism of a police crackdown on protesters following the contested re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.
The activists were imprisoned for between five and 15 days, the Interior Ministry said.
Sunday night's protests were one of the strongest street challenges in years to Lukashenko's hardline rule. Opposition leaders, including at least five candidates in the election, could receive up to 15 years in prison if convicted of inciting violence.
Lukashenko, officially re-elected to a fourth term in office with nearly 80 percent of the vote, has vowed to thwart any attempt at "revolution" and said there would be no more "senseless democracy" in the former Soviet republic.
The 56-year-old former state farm director has ruled Belarus, which forms a buffer between Russia and NATO, since 1994.
His uncompromising tone suggests little immediate chance of warmer relations with the European Union, which has been weighing how far to engage with the country of 10 million people on its eastern flank, and possibly provide financial aid.
Instead, Western criticism could drive Lukashenko further towards Russia. Minsk and Moscow recently patched up differences that had led Russia to cut back the energy subsidies that underpin Belarus's Soviet-style command economy and its generous social payouts.
LOOKING TO RUSSIA AND CHINA
"Lukashenko understands that, in order to keep the support of the population, he must find ways to secure capital inflows. With the Western option now closed off, Minsk will be forced to look to Russia and China," Eurasia Group said in a note.
Opposition parties said they would launch a "campaign of solidarity" with those being held by police.
Dozens of supporters later gathered outside a Minsk jail where some of the demonstrators were being held. They held candles and chanted "Freedom!" and "Long live Belarus!" while relatives of the detainees searched for their names on lists pinned to the entrance.
"The dictatorship has united the opposition," said Vyacheslav Sivchik, leader of the opposition "Together" movement.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, echoed on Tuesday U.S. and European criticism of the crackdown, expressing concern about "violence against, and abduction of, opposition candidates and their supporters."
Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticised the poll as flawed and condemned the police crackdown on about 10,000 protesters who marched down Minsk's broad main avenue to accuse Lukashenko of vote-rigging.
Activist Natalia Koliada, who was held by police for 14 hours, said Lukashenko was playing a "great game" with the EU.
"He says 'I have political prisoners, you give me credits (loans), and I release them'," Koliada, co-founder of an underground theatre banned by the government, told Reuters.
"Now we need to understand whether the European Union is ready to continue this game, because I know that the people sitting in the KGB (prison) don't want this game and they are ready to sit in jail and to change this country."
(Editing by David Stamp)