Protesters defy Belarus authorities for third day of rallies denouncing election

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Hundreds of Belarusian demonstrators shivered and cheered through a frigid night and morning snowfall Tuesday on a square in the capital, trying to keep up momentum in an arduous and unlikely drive to overturn elections that gave a new term to the authoritarian president.


A gray dawn marked the start of a third day of protest against the overwhelming victory declared for Alexander Lukashenko, the incumbent leader who authorities said won 82.6 percent of the vote. Western governments and Europe's main elections-monitoring organization criticized the election as seriously flawed.

«What happened last night will be in history books,» the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, told protesters in Minsk's Oktyabrskaya Square shortly after dawn.

«We are here, and we have begun the true struggle for freedom, truth and justice,» he said, urging supporters to stay in the square.

The first protest was on Sunday evening, when some 10,000 people heeded Milinkevich's call and gathered after polls closed for a demonstration that was extraordinary for its size and for the non-interference by police. They usually move fast and harshly to break up unauthorized gatherings.

After several elated hours, the demonstrators went home and leaders called on them to come again Monday evening. They did _ but only in about half the numbers of the night before. That fell to a few hundred by midnight.

The Belarusian opposition were trying to mimic techniques that worked in their southern neighbor, Ukraine. But in Ukraine, crowds of 100,000 or more that jammed the center of the capital for weeks in December 2004, forcing a rerun of a flawed presidential election.

Through the night, protesters in Minsk stood in a human chain around a dozen small tents they set up in the square, locking arms to protect the tiny encampment. Others tried to bring in blankets, food and hot beverages that help them endure a round-the-clock vigil in below-freezing temperatures, but were often detained by police.

«I believe that the repression will not stop us,» said Olena Savina, a 21-year-old journalism student who said police detained her for about an hour and took away the bread, sausages and sleeping mats she was bringing to he square. «I believe that there will be more and more of us.»

That is what happened in Ukraine and in 2003 in Georgia, as more and more came to protests when they saw police were not interfering.

Milinkevich has called Lukashenko an «illegal, illegitimate president,» describing his official vote tally as «monstrously inflated.» He called for a new election.

International observers said the vote fell short of democratic standards; Europe's main human rights organization said it was a «farce;» and the United States called for a new election.

However, the leverage of the international community seemed limited and the diminished size of the crowd suggested the opposition was losing momentum.

«We plan to stay here ... until the moment when the vote is pronounced falsified, when the authorities admit this and a new election is announced,» said a 21-year-old student who gave his name only as Alexander, one of a dozen people sitting among the tents.

Milinkevich's appeal for a repeat vote was backed by the United States, which hinted at possible travel restrictions on Belarusian leaders. The European Union was considering broadening such restrictions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, congratulated Lukashenko and said the results would help strengthen the alliance of the two ex-Soviet nations.

Milinkevich said two top opposition figures, United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko and his deputy, Alexander Dobrovolsky, were detained early Tuesday.

Andrei Denko, head of a leading opposition newspaper called Nasha Niva, was detained by police after he got off a bus by the square Tuesday morning.

Three Georgian citizens, including a diplomat, were detained late Monday in Belarus and were likely to be deported, Georgian lawmaker Givi Targamadze said in Tbilisi. He said the men were detained because they are Georgian.

Belarusian authorities claimed before the vote that Georgians including Targamadze were involved in an alleged election-day terror plot aimed at overthrowing the government _ accusations widely dismissed as scare tactics.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry said it could not immediately confirm the detentions.