MINSK, Belarus – Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko was declared on Monday the overwhelming winner of the country's presidential election, securing a fourth term in office after truncheon-wielding police arrested hundreds of opposition supporters, including seven other presidential candidates, who were protesting against alleged fraud in the poll.
Lukashenko, who has led the former Soviet-state for more than 16 years in a repressive regime often described as the "last dictatorship in Europe," won Sunday's balloting with nearly 80 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results from the Central Elections Commission.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the center of the Belarusian capital as soon as the polls closed to protest the alleged vote-rigging.
Helmeted riot police bearing shields and swinging truncheons dispersed the protesters from near the main government building about two hours later after some in the crowd broke windows and doors of the building.
One of the top opposition candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev, was beaten in a clash with government forces as he tried to lead a column of supporters to the protest. He was taken to a hospital, but his aide said seven men in civilian clothing later wrapped Neklyayev in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him away as his wife screamed.
Activists said he and six other candidates were arrested, including Andrei Sannikov, who was among those beaten outside the government building. Sannikov was the next-highest vote getter after Lukashenko, tallying 2.5 percent.
The U.S. Embassy said that Washington "strongly condemns all election day violence in Belarus."
"We are especially concerned over excessive use of force by the authorities, including the beating and detention of several presidential candidates and violence against journalists and civil society activists," the embassy said in a statement. "We are alarmed that (Neklyayev) was forcibly taken from a Minsk hospital by unknown individuals and we urge his safe and immediate return."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement that "it's not acceptable to harass, beat or arrest opposition candidates and their supporters who want to exert their right to freedom of expression."
Poland's Foreign Ministry also condemned the violent crackdown, saying in a statement that "the brutality of the security forces is inadmissible." It appealed for the immediate release of the opposition candidates, whose arrests raise "particular concern."
The human rights center Vesna said the total of 400 people were arrested Sunday. Interior Ministry spokesman Anatoly Kuleshov said organizers of mass disturbances could face up to 15 years in prison.
Also according to Vesna, police early Monday raided the office of the website for Charter 97, an opposition organization connected with Sannikov, and arrested its editor.
Russia and the European Union are closely monitoring the election, having offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction. In previous elections, none of which were judged free and fair by Western observers, Lukashenko tallied 80 percent or more.
Lukashenko, a 56-year-old former collective firm manager, has maintained a quasi-Soviet state in the country of 10 million, allowing no independent broadcast media, stifling dissent and keeping about 80 percent of the industry under state control.
In recent years, he has quarreled intensively with the Kremlin, his main sponsor, as Russia raised prices for the below-market gas and oil on which Belarus' economy depends. However, his tone changed this month after Russia agreed to drop tariffs for oil exported to Belarus — a concession worth an estimated $4 billion a year.
Lukashenko recently has also been working to curry favor with the West, which harshly criticized his 16-year rule for human rights abuses and repressive politics. Last week, he called for improved ties with the U.S., which in previous years he had cast as an enemy. But the violent dispersal of opposition protests makes a rapprochement with the West unlikely.
Associated Press reporter Jim Heintz contributed to this report.