Thousands of opposition protesters defied a government ban Tuesday to stage a demonstration honoring a banned Belarusian holiday and clashed with riot police as dozens were detained.
President Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian government had vowed to prevent any demonstrations, but thousands turned out in central Minsk to converge on a central square that was blocked off by heavily armed police.
Protesters — many of whom appeared to be students — chanted "Long live Belarus!" and waved opposition and European Union flags as police warned them through loudspeakers that the meeting was illegal and they should disperse.
After about an hour, police began wading into the crowds, beating demonstrators with truncheons and violently hauling them away en masse to waiting police trucks.
One protester, a middle-aged woman, was tripped and tackled by riot police as she tried to run away. The police then dragged screaming by her hair to a waiting police bus.
An Associated Press reporter saw dozens taken away by police; the Interior Ministry reported more than 80 people detained.
Alis Belasky, who heads the rights group Vesna, said well more than 100 people had been delivered to different police precincts around Minsk, and that Ukrainians and Poles were among them. A Belarusian newspaper photographer was also severely beaten in the scuffles, he said.
"The authorities have resorted to extreme measures," opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko said. "By doing this, they are showing to the world that Belarus is a dictatorship with no freedom of speech nor freedom to gather."
Traditional day of demonstration
Hundreds later broke off from the main protest and — chanting "Down With Luka!" and "Freedom!" — tried to march down a central street to the presidential administration building. The road was blocked by police trucks and officers in riot gear, who also violently hauled protesters away into waiting police trucks.
March 25 has long been a traditional day of demonstration for the opposition, marking what they call Freedom Day — the anniversary of the 1918 declaration of the first, short-lived independent Belarusian state.
Lukashenko's government has banned such rallies in the past, and opposition groups reported security agents arresting activists around the country before Tuesday's demonstrations and shutting down bus and subway stops near the Minsk square.
"Of course today more forces and equipment will be deployed. Any unsanctioned march will be prevented in accordance with the necessary laws," Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov said before the event.
Lukashenko has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the United States and some European countries for his government's efforts to quash opposition groups and independent media.
On Monday, the United States announced it would cut staffing at its embassy in Minsk in half, bowing to Belarus' demands amid a marked worsening in relations between the two countries — sparked mainly by U.S. sanctions on Belneftekhim, a state-controlled oil-processing and chemicals company.
Accusations of spying
Minsk turned up the pressure this week with a Belarusian state television report that accused the U.S. Embassy of setting up a spy ring in the ex-Soviet republic. On Tuesday, Valery Nadtochaev, a spokesman for Belarus' top security agency, told reporters: "What was shown on Belarusian TV about spies, this is indeed true."
He refused to give any further details or commentary.
The report claimed 10 Belarusians were recruited to collect information for use against Belarus and turned it over to the FBI. It said they were provided with an apartment near the embassy and equipped with cameras, binoculars and other items.
The top U.S. diplomat in Belarus, Jonathan Moore, denied the United States was running any spy ring, and said the embassy had given the Foreign Ministry a complete list of its employees.
"There are no secrets and no plots here," he was quoted as telling Belarusian news agency BelaPAN.