Bloody battle in Belarus capital

2010-12-20 20:25

Minsk - It started quietly. Some 200 protestors decided to brave imminent arrest to march toward one of the main squares of the Belarus capital behind a banner saying simply: "Tell the Truth."

They did not make it far. Fifty metres into their solemn Sunday protest, the mostly-young demonstrators ran into an impenetrable line of OMON riot police officers who beat heavy clubs against their metal shields in intimidation.

Moments later, the helmeted OMON officers pounced, their truncheons leaving streaks in the night skies, their metal-tipped boots stomping ferociously on those who fell.

Those beaten included Vladimir Nekliayev, one of the more visible challengers to President Alexander Lukashenko, and who was officially handed less than 2% of the vote.

Nekliayev, blood pouring through his closely-cropped grey hair, was delivered with head trauma to hospital - and from there, wrapped in a blanket, to a police holding cell, according to the challenger's wife.

Lukashenko meanwhile was awarded nearly 80% of the ballot on Soviet-style turnout of more than 90% and will enjoy his fourth inauguration ceremony next month.

New round of elections

But the chilling prospect of five more years of international isolation under Lukashenko seemed to be the driving force on the street, where the first brave few hundred were soon joined by thousands more on Oktyabrskaya Square.

A traditional meeting place in times of crisis, the square had been turned days earlier into a huge ice rink by Lukashenko, a New Year's tree standing incongruously in its centre.

The crowd did not care, starting to call for a new round of fair elections on the snow-covered ice.

Some chanted what to them seemed obvious: "Lukashenko could not have won." The police countered by blasting music through loud speakers.

The chants grew louder, European Union flags waving in the air amid flares.

"We are not cowards," declared one young woman as the crowd decided to march on to Independence Square, the cradle of independent Belarus that was now surrounded by dozens and dozens of empty police buses, waiting for the final confrontation.

"Imagine how much you have to fear your own people to throw all this force at them," said a pensioner.

Brave protesters move forward

Ten years earlier, said the woman, she had lost her state job for a grave offense - disobeying instructions to cast her ballot early in parliamentary elections, a method observers suspect Lukashenko uses to rig the vote.

The crowd had by now moved past the first government buildings, state officials watching them nervously out of windows, most of the lights still on well into the night.

Reaching their destination point, some had begun pouncing against doors and throwing trash bins and anything else they could find at the windows, hoping against hope to unseat the regime.

Suddenly, those doors opened, hundreds of riot police pouring out, throwing themselves at the demonstrators in a final bout that lasted about 20 minutes.

Their ranks soon swelled to around 10 000, about the same number as the unarmed protest group, some of whom tried to flee only to be intercepted on the side streets by the regular police.

400+ arrested

Those who fell bloodied into the snow were seen being bandaged on the spot by their friends.

Four candidates ended up being hauled into police vans off the square, two more being pulled from their cars in the course of the night.

Only two of the nine challengers to Lukashenko avoided arrest by Monday morning.

Eventually, the scene shifted into the main prisons of Minsk, which by various counts were now holding at least 400 people.

It was a sad scene, with mothers weeping for their children, knowing that their lives had irrevocably changed.

"My son Artur will be expelled from university," said one mother through her tears. "His career is over."