BELARUS HAS jailed about 600 people who protested against President Alexander Lukashenko's election victory on Sunday, amid stern warnings from senior US senators that the crackdown on dissent had wrecked Minsk's chances of a rapprochement with the West.
The demonstrators were initially jailed for up to 15 days but prosecutors warned that some might be held for longer and could face up to 15 years in prison for "organising mass disturbances", something the autocratic Mr Lukashenko has vowed to prevent.
Normally quiet Minsk, which is closely monitored by Mr Lukashenko's police and a security service that is still called the KGB, erupted on Sunday night when thousands of people marched in protest at alleged ballot fraud and demanded the president's resignation after 16 years in power.
After some demonstrators briefly tried to storm parliament, riot police dispersed them and arrested hundreds of their number. A series of raids through the night saw police also seize at least seven of the nine men who had run against Mr Lukashenko in a ballot that he officially won with almost 80 per cent of votes. His nearest rival won less than 3 per cent, and turnout was stated as an unlikely 90 per cent.
"That is it," Mr Lukashenko (56) said after a vote that the EU hoped would mark an improvement in ties with Belarus, allowing it to extend billions of euro in funding to Minsk and weaken Russian influence there.
"Our country will have no more senseless, muddle-headed democracy," the former collective farm boss fumed. "I warned you . . . you are messing with the wrong guy."
A White House spokesman said the US "cannot accept as legitimate" the results of the election and called for politicians and protesters to be released, as did the EU and many of its members.
Russia declined to criticise Mr Lukashenko and called the vote a "domestic matter" for Belarus, which despite recent disagreements with Moscow still serves it well as a buffer against eastward EU and Nato expansion.
Alexander Milinkevich, who ran against Mr Lukashenko in the 2006 election, said activists hoped to protest last night outside the jail where many demonstrators are believed to be held. "The dictator has made the opposition unified," he said. "We're not in depression. We are continuing the fight."
Some critics said Mr Lukashenko would now try to persuade the West to give him aid in return for the release of his new political prisoners.
But top US politicians said the man once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the White House had blown his chance of improving relations with Washington.
"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 Belarusian government should know that its brutal actions are going to carry a very heavy cost . . . [They] illustrate precisely why Alexander Lukashenko's dictatorship has no place in modern Europe."