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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Police Quell Miners' Protest

MINSK, Belarus -- Belarussian police arrested miners Wednesday as they started marching toward the capital to take part in an opposition rally against President Alexander Lukashenko.


The opposition has called for a mass protest Friday against Lukashenko's plans to push through a referendum on expanding his powers and extending his term.


In a grim warning Wednesday, the parliament speaker said an escalation of political tensions and even bloodshed could be expected. Parliament opposes Lukashenko's referendum.


Lukashenko was in Moscow on Wednesday, meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to discuss further integration between the two former Soviet republics.


The Belarussian miners were arrested as soon as they started a 120-kilometer march to protest low wages and poor work conditions. They planned to be in Minsk in time for Friday's rally.


Several police cars and vans were waiting when some 40 workers left the mining community of Soligorsk. The miners wore cloth signs that said: "Bread and jobs, not empty words" and "Factories need new machines, not bureaucrats."


Police officers rushed in to seize the 10 in front. They tore off their signs, twisted protesters' arms behind their backs and pushed them into the waiting vans.


The miners were released after paying fines for holding an illegal rally, and were told they would face up to three years in jail if they continued the march.


But march organizer Viktor Babayed and others vowed to continue.


"We are going anyway, no matter what this comes to. We must defend our rights, our human dignity," Babayed said.


Lukashenko insists on having his referendum Nov. 7. Parliament refuses to go along with the president's plans, and under the constitution only parliament can set a referendum date.


But the increasingly authoritarian Lukashenko is planning to get around parliament by convening a "popular assembly" Saturday to set the referendum.


A Council of Europe leader in Minsk on Wednesday warned Lukashenko against following through on his plans. The consequences of such anti-constitutional moves would be difficult to predict, said Leni Fischer, president of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, Interfax reported.