MINSK, Belarus – Police stormed the opposition tent camp in the Belarusian capital Minsk early Friday morning, 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 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 approximately 200 demonstrators were taken into custody without apparent resistance.
As police rushed forward to begin seizing demonstrators, a man who was apparently heading the operation said, "I told you not to beat them," according to a local journalist who gave her name as Olga. Another journalist said she saw police kick a few demonstrators who fell as they were being hustled onto the bus.
By the end of the 10-15 minute operation, all of the protesters had been taken away, leaving only their tents, some gear and garbage. City workers soon came and began throwing the remains of the camp into truck beds, with two bulldozers that also dumped debris into the trucks. A stray dog wandered in during the operation was scrounging for food in what was left of the camp.
Police had been detaining opposition supporters and would-be protesters away from the square, but Friday's arrests marked the first time they had tried to forcefully eject the demonstrators en masse.
"The authorities are destroying freedom, truth and justice. There was only enough democracy for three days and this shows the essence of the regime that has been established in Belarus," opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told The Associated Press.
Their action followed his warning Thursday that increased persecution would only strengthen protests against the authoritarian government.
"The people on the square were courageous," Milinkevich said, speaking while on his way to a jail where detainees were taken. "They got up off their knees and together with them all of Belarus stood up."
This week's protests over the official figures giving a landslide win to 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 to small to pose a real threat to the hardline 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 Saturday — 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," Milinkevich told The Associated Press.
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."
Milinkevich said assailants attacked a top aide Thursday, one of the latest incidents in what a leading international security body called a campaign of persecution against Belarusians challenging the results of Sunday's elections.
Viktor Korniyenko, a deputy chief on Milinkevich's staff, was clubbed on the head by two assailants and is hospitalized in serious condition, opposition spokesman Pavel Mazheika said.
"The authorities are stepping up repression, but this makes us stronger," Milinkevich told the nighttime rally.
The attack came a day after state television broadcast a recording of an alleged conversation in which Korniyenko consulted with a Polish NGO, the Batory Foundation, on strategies for protests against Lukashenko's third term.
Lukashenko has repeatedly claimed that the opposition is supported by Western forces seeking to bring him down.
The Central Election Commission released final election results Thursday saying Lukashenko received 83 percent of the vote and Milinkevich just 6.1 percent.
The commission chief, Lidiya Yermoshina, said the inauguration would take place March 31, but its secretary Nikolai Lozovik told The Associated Press that date was tentative and the ceremony would probably be held later.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, is genuinely popular with many Belarusians who credit him with providing economic and political stability. But Milinkevich says Lukashenko's official tally is inflated and is calling for a new vote.
A top trans-Atlantic democracy and security body said Thursday it had information about more than 200 detentions in the three days following the election, and called on the authorities to release everyone detained in connection with the peaceful protest.
"The Belarusian authorities must immediately put an end to the persecution of their opponents," the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Karel de Gucht, said in a statement.