- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

MINSK, Belarus — Police stormed the opposition tent camp in the Belarusian capital of Minsk early today, detaining scores of demonstrators who had spent a fourth night in a central square to protest President Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in a disputed election.

The arrests came after a half dozen large police buses and 75 helmeted riot police with clubs pulled up to Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk about 3 a.m.

The police stood around for a few minutes and then barged into the tent camp filled with protesters.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene said they wrestled about 40 to 50 of the demonstrators, who were resisting, into buses. The rest of the 200 demonstrators were taken into custody without apparent resistance.

By the end of the 10- to 15-minute operation, all of the protesters had been taken away. All that remained were their tents — kicked down during the raid — their gear and garbage.

Police had been detaining opposition supporters and would-be protesters away from the square, but today’s arrests marked the first time they had tried to forcefully eject the demonstrators en masse.

Their action followed opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich’s warning yesterday that increased persecution would only strengthen protests against the authoritarian government.

This week’s protests over the official figures giving a landslide win to Mr. Lukashenko have consistently attracted thousands nightly — and more than 10,000 at the first one Sunday — an exceptional number in the tightly controlled former Soviet nation, which has a history of swift, violent police dispersal of small rallies. A core of about 200 has held the square overnight.

But the numbers have been far too small to pose a real threat to the hard-line Belarusian leader’s rule.

That has raised increasing questions about what the opposition movement’s strategy is, or even if it has one. A rally called for tomorrow — the anniversary of the declaration of the first independent Belarusian state, and a traditional day for opposition rallies — is likely to be key in determining how much support the opposition has.

“March 25 will be an important day. … On that day, we will make known the long-term plans of the opposition,” Mr. Milinkevich said.

Later, speaking to a nighttime crowd of about 3,000, he said, “The 25th will be a day of freedom for thousands and thousands of Belarusians. History has shown that the Belarusian fight for freedom has not gone unnoticed. We have come out into the square.”

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