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700 arrested in Belarus, 2 candidates freed

Two candidates arrested after Belarus' presidential election have been freed and one said the KGB tried to pressure him into renouncing his opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian regime.

Grigory Kostusyev spoke Tuesday as opposition figures tried to rally after the arrests of seven of the nine opposition challengers and the detention of nearly 700 people protesting alleged fraud in Sunday's vote.

Many were seized when riot police clashed with thousands of demonstrators outside the main government building after voting ended. The preliminary count gave Lukashenko nearly 80 percent of the vote, but international observers say the election was seriously flawed.

Kostusyev said he and another presidential candidate, Dmitry Uss, were freed late Monday but his son 22-year-old Andrei had been detained and beaten. Kostusyev said he had been held by the KGB, as the ex-Soviet republic's security service is still called, and was "interrogated toughly" but not physically abused.

"They wanted me to renounce and publicly condemn my colleagues ... but after I refused to do this, they let me go," he told a news conference.

Kostusyev later attended a small protest outside a jail where many opposition activists are still being held but could not find Andrei's name on a list of those inside. Up to 30 people lined up outside the jail, passing bread and water to guards in the hope that their loved ones would receive the supplies.

Lukashenko, often called Europe's last dictator, has been in power in Belarus for more than 16 years. He exercises overwhelming control over the politics, industry and media in this nation of 10 million, which borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic nations. The repression has been an embarrassment to the European Union, which had offered 3 billion euros ($3.9 billion) in aid if the elections were judged to be free and fair.

Alexander Milinkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2006 election, led the protest outside the jail. "Do not be afraid, we are together!" he told the crowd. Chants of "Freedom! Freedom!" and "Long Live Belarus," were kept brief to avoid antagonizing scores of uniformed police nearby.

Among those holding candles 27-year-old Olga Lagvinovich, who said her husband Jan was arrested and had his hand broken. She was concerned he would be fired from his job in a wooden-floor factory, because she already had been fired Monday from her job as a school psychologist.

"Belarus has been thrown back into the previous century, into the period of awful Soviet repression," she said.

Milinkevich said the arrests have given the opposition new momentum.

"We are not in depression," he said. "The dictator had made the opposition united."

Those arrested include the most prominent challengers to Lukashenko: candidates Vladimir Neklyayev and Andrei Sannikov. Neklyayev was beaten as he tried to lead supporters into Minsk for the protest, was hospitalized for his injuries but later spirited away by unidentified men. Lukashenko confirmed that he was being held in a KGB prison.

On Tuesday, Ales Belyatsky of the Belarusian human rights organization Vesna said some 700 people had been arrested. Lukashenko earlier gave the figure as 639.

The other presidential candidates still in custody were Nikolai Statkevich, Vitaly Rymashevsky and Ales Mikhalevich. Candidates Yaroslav Romanchuk and Viktor Tereshchenko were not detained.

The large number of arrests, the images of club-swinging riot police and the suspiciously high vote count for Lukashenko have prompted sharp criticism from the West and are likely to undermine his attempts to improve relations with EU countries.

Prior to the vote, Lukashenko had frequently criticized Russia, which had angered him by raising prices for the once-cheap oil and natural gas that are the bedrock of Belarus' state-controlled economy. But Russia earlier this month agreed to drop tariffs for oil exports.

Kostusyev contended that Sunday's clashes are part of a Russian plan to bring Belarus back into the Kremlin's sphere of influence.

"I'm convinced that these provocations with the use of force were created by the Kremlin, which was frightened by Lukashenko's dialogue with the West — and Lukashenko fell into the trap and now doesn't know what to do," he said.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said Tuesday she is deeply concerned about the violence against opposition candidates and their supporters.