Belarus police crack down on Minsk protest

MINSK Wed Jun 22, 2011 7:46pm BST

A Belarussian policeman in plain clothes (R) detains a man in central Minsk, June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

A Belarussian policeman in plain clothes (R) detains a man in central Minsk, June 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko

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MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus riot police detained scores of demonstrators at a protest rally against President Alexander Lukashenko in the centre of the capital Minsk on Wednesday night.

A Reuters reporter at the scene in the city centre said Belarussian special forces had rounded up dozens of people and put them into police buses.

Rallies against Lukashenko's rule are rare in the tightly-policed ex-Soviet republic, but protest calls on social networking sites have multiplied in recent weeks as a severe currency crisis has brought economic hardship.

Police sealed off entry to the city's October Square near the main presidential headquarters, as they did a week ago.

When up to 1,000 people gathered on the main thoroughfare, Independence Prospect, squads of special forces moved in and hustled people into police buses.

Responding to an opposition Internet call, dozens of cars had joined the protest, driving slowly down the main thoroughfare and sounding their horns.

Otherwise demonstrators gathered peacefully, simply applauding in a coordinated act of protest.

The Belarus rights organisation Vesna-96 said that about 100 people had been detained in other parts of Belarus for staging protests.

Interior Ministry officials were not reachable for comment.

Belarus has been struggling for months to pull out of a currency crisis -- largely fuelled by Lukashenko's populist economic policies -- which has led to a 36 percent devaluation against the dollar.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, signalled last Friday that he wanted an end to street rallies and said he would sack his interior minister if they did not end.

HOPED-FOR IMF CREDIT

Minsk is receiving several millions dollars of credit from a Russian-led bailout, but is also seeking up to $8 billion of aid from the International Monetary Fund.

Russia is Belarus's biggest trading partner, providing it with oil and gas and a huge market for its exports.

Delivery of IMF aid is complicated by Lukashenko's poor image in the West since a police crackdown on an opposition rally against his re-election last December.

The United States and the European Union have implemented a travel ban on him and his inner circle while a special report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has accused his government of using harassment, torture and blackmail to keep the lid on unrest.

The EU last Monday extended economic sanctions against Belarus, imposing an asset freeze on an arms tycoon close to Lukashenko and three companies linked to him.

The EU has also expanded a blacklist of people subject to travel and other sanctions.

Vladimir Neklyayev, one of several opposition figures who ran against Lukashenko in an election last December and were subsequently prosecuted for their alleged part in mass disturbances, said Belarussian authorities clearly regarded protest rallies as a "great danger."

"The authorities took these protests very seriously. The authorities see a big danger for themselves and have chosen the tactics of intimidation," he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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