MINSK, Belarus – Police stormed the opposition tent camp in the Belarusian capital Minsk early Friday morning, detaining hundreds of demonstrators who had spent a fourth night protesting President Alexander Lukashenko's victory in a disputed election.
The arrests came after a half dozen large police trucks and around 100 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.
They first wrestled about 50 resisting demonstrators into the trucks. The rest of the 200-300 demonstrators then filed into the trucks quietly, seeing that the end had come for the days-long protest that was unprecedented in the authoritarian ex-Soviet republic.
Journalists were kept about 60 feet away behind police lines, but a local reporter who gave her name only as Olga said she heard a man who was apparently heading the operation yell "I told you not to beat them."
The police who stormed into the camp had long truncheons, but were not seen beating demonstrators, as they often had done when breaking up smaller opposition rallies in past years. One local journalist said she saw police kick a few demonstrators who fell as they were being hustled into the truck.
By the end of the 10-15 minute operation, all of the protesters had been taken away, leaving only the remains their encampment -- about 20 tents and camping gear and several of the banned red-and-white flags that the demonstrators had waved.
One protester, Nikolai Ilyin, 21, said the demonstrators were taken to a Minsk jail -- many of them in socks because they had been sleeping -- and faced an ordeal as they waited to be registered. Many were forced to stand in the snow with only socks for two hours, he said.
"We were made to stand against a wall with our hands up, and those who would turn their heads or say something were punched in their kidneys," Ilyin said. He said he fainted and taken to a hospital, where he fled.
City workers soon began throwing the remains of the camp into dumptrucks, aided by two bulldozers scooping up debris. 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 since Monday night, when demonstrators set up the first tents. The protests began with a rally of more than 10,000 people on Sunday, the day of the election, and about 5,000 came to a second protest on Monday, when a core group decided to make the protests around-the-clock.
A top police official earlier in the week had said there was no intention to disperse the demonstration and it was not immediately clear what prompted the pre-dawn storming. An annual television awards ceremony is to be held Friday evening at the hulking Palace of the Republic that borders the square and the sight of the scruffy tent camp nearby the gala would have been an embarrassment to the government.
The U.S. government criticized the raid, saying it was monitoring the situation closely.
"We are disturbed by the breakup of the demonstrations," said state Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus in Washington. "As we have said before, we condemn all acts by the government of Belarus to deprive the citizens of that country of their right to peacefully express their views."
On Thursday, the Belarus Foreign Ministry lashed out a repeated U.S. criticism: "The people of Belarus have made their choice and it's absolutely irrelevant here whether the United States likes this choice or not."
The raid left in doubt the prospects for the opposition forces who had rallied behind presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich, who wanted a rerun of the election without the participation of Lukashenko, whose election he contends was unconstitutional because he was allowed to run for a third term after an allegedly fraudulent referendum in 2004 abolished presidential term limits.
"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," Milinkevich told The Associated Press after the raid.
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."
Despite that, the number of protesters had never risen to the level that was likely to be able to force change, as happened in post-election protests in the ex-Soviet countries of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan where opposition leaders eventually came to power.
On Thursday, Milinkevich had said he planned to announce "the long-term plans of the opposition" at what was intended to be a major demonstration on Saturday. He told AP early Friday that he would continue to call for a rally on Saturday.
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.
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.