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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Arrest Dozens in Minsk Protests

MINSK, Belarus -- As many as 70 activists were arrested for taking part in a street protest against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, opposition groups said Thursday.

About 5,000 people carrying posters and singing songs gathered in the center of Minsk on Wednesday to demand an end to what they called Lukashenko's illegitimate rule. When the crowd assembled near Lukashenko's residence, police warned that the rally had not been officially sanctioned.

Police then used clubs and tear gas to break up the gathering, arresting 50 to 70 protesters, said Vladimir Yukho, a spokesman for the Belarussian Popular Front, the main opposition group. Those arrested were expected to go on trial behind closed doors beginning Thursday.

Belarus' Interior Ministry refused to comment on Wednesday's arrests.

Lukashenko has consistently cracked down on opponents during his five-year term, which was to have expired Tuesday. But in 1996, he introduced constitutional amendments that extended his tenure until 2001.

Belarussian opposition groups and international observers said the constitutional changes, approved in a referendum, were marred by fraud and they have never recognized the results. Lukashenko used the referendum to disband the opposition-led parliament and create a new one made up of his loyalists.

Some members of the old parliament held an underground session Wednesday to declare Lukashenko's term over and make Semyon Sharetsky, the speaker of the dissolved parliament, the acting head of state.

Lukashenko has ignored the opposition moves and lashed out at his foes on state television. Speaking at a nationally televised intercom conference with local officials, he scolded the media for covering the opposition rally.

"A harvester must be the main hero for the mass media," Lukashenko said. "But they show those unhinged people loitering around Minsk streets, and 600 out of this crowd of 1,000 are plainclothes policemen."

Lukashenko, who is openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union, has drawn strong criticism from international human rights groups and Western governments.

The U.S. Embassy in Minsk on Wednesday released a statement by State Department spokesman James Rubin, who said that the end of Lukashenko's legal term left Belarus at a "constitutional impasse."

"Lukashenko's legitimacy as an elected representative of the Belarussian people can only be restored by free and fair democratic elections," the statement said.

The Foreign Ministry responded with an angry statement Thursday, saying Belarus "categorically rejects the attempts of some states to decide for the Belarussian people what laws and government they must have."