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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Cracks Down, Orders Opposition Arrests

MINSK, Belarus -- Cracking down on dissent, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday ordered the arrest of key opposition leaders and banned anti-government rallies.


Authorities were reportedly holding at least 150 protesters arrested at a rally Friday, in addition to about 30 opposition leaders.


The demonstrators were arrested during a gathering originally called to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.


Dozens of baton-wielding police waded into the crowd to disperse it after it turned into a 50,000-strong protest against Lukashenko's policies.


At least 150 people were arrested, said Anatoly Shagun of the Belarussian Popular Front, the leading opposition movement, which organized the rally. Leon Borshchevsky, Vintsuk Vechorka, Yury Khadyrko and several other top officials of the front were arrested Friday night and Saturday morning, he said. Popular Front leader Zenon Pozdnyak went into hiding, activists said.


Vechorka and Khadyrko went on a hunger strike in prison Sunday to protest the crackdown.


Pavel Znavets, 28, an attorney and lawmaker, said he and 11 other people were arrested at the front's headquarters and spent the night at a police station in Minsk with no food or water. Later, they were interrogated at the prosecutor's office.


Under Belarussian law, police have the right to hold people for three days before filing charges.


"This is an agony of Lukashenko's totalitarian regime, which is based on supreme cynicism and repressions. The goal of this action is to eliminate the parliamentary opposition," Znavets said.


Znavets said he was released after he threatened a hunger strike, while the rest remained behind bars. Arrests were continuing in the city, including those of Ukrainian nationalists who took part in Friday's rally, he said.


Police spokesman Alexei Titov said authorities arrested 65 people and had already released most of them. But unidentified government officials told Interfax that over 200 protesters were arrested.


Titov said 18 demonstrators and 11 policemen required medical assistance after the rally. But Shagun, the opposition spokesman, said at least 50 protesters were injured.


During Friday's rally, some demonstrators carried Belarus' former national flag, with alternative white-red-white stripes. It was replaced with Belarus' Soviet-era red flag last year in a referendum initiated by Lukashenko. Lukashenko, an outspoken ex-state farm director, favors strong ties with Moscow. Earlier this month, he signed a union treaty with Russia, which was seen by the opposition as a virtual end to Belarus' independence.


The increasingly authoritarian president, who has little tolerance for dissent, accuses the nationalist opposition of trying to overthrow his government by force and accepting money from unspecified foreign countries.


He told Interfax on Saturday that he would outlaw further rallies. "We must work instead of rallying," he said.


Lukashenko said Friday's demonstration was a "brawl and the last sighs of ill people, who put themselves beyond the limits of the law."