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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarussians Come Out to Vote and Protest

APPresident Alexander Lukashenko voting.
MINSK, Belarus -- Some Belarussians braved torrential rain and threats of a police crackdown to answer an opposition call to protest against the likely re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in voting Sunday.

Eyewitnesses said several hundred protesters were heading for a square in central Minsk as polls closed at 8:00 p.m. to hear the results of an election scarred by smear campaigns and allegations of vote rigging.

The opposition, led by trade unionist Vladimir Goncharik, had urged Belarussians to join the unauthorized rally, saying a turnout of 20,000 would represent a huge moral victory over Lukashenko, who is widely expected to be returned to power.

But significant protests were not expected. The opposition has accused authorities of stirring up fears of bloodshed to ensure that most people stay at home.

"The Belarussian people can be absolutely sure everything will be calm in the country," a relaxed-looking Lukashenko said after casting his ballot. "We're in control of the streets, people are going about their normal business."

Asked who might replace him in another five years' time, he said, smiling, "Who says this will be my last term in office?"

A rather less confident-looking Goncharik dropped his ballot paper into a box at another polling station in Minsk, saying, "For a new Belarus."

"It's too early to speak of results but the fact that many people threw off their fear and started thinking about their future is already a big victory," he said.

Belarussian commentators and Western diplomats have forecast that Lukashenko, 47, shunned by the West for his autocratic style and poor human rights record, will win in the first round. At best, Goncharik, 61, may force a re-run, they say.

Like last year's parliamentary elections, which the West says were rigged, the presidential election has been dogged by doubts about standards and procedure.

Authorities banned 2,000 of 7,000 domestic election monitors and accused the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose observers are monitoring the election and which has voiced concern about possible vote-rigging, of fronting a spy operation to topple Lukashenko.

An early voting system, where ballots could be cast as early as Tuesday, was open to abuse, Western polling experts said. Goncharik said his team would pass information about ballot stuffing by Lukashenko's campaign to international election monitors.

The opposition has also accused authorities of intimidation, smear campaigns and denying them adequate access to media and voters.

By contrast, Lukashenko enjoyed broad coverage in the state-dominated media, consigning Goncharik to relative obscurity. Many voters complained he was virtually unknown.

Lukashenko said he was unconcerned that the West might not recognize the elections. "Our elections don't need anybody's recognition," Lukashenko said Sunday, The Associated Press reported. "There is no such thing in the legislation as Western recognition."

Lukashenko also denounced the accusations of recent weeks that his government sponsored death squads to remove his critics. "You have talked about death so much that people are getting sick of it," he told reporters as he voted.

A small explosion blew up a bench near the U.S. Embassy in Minsk on Sunday, The AP reported.

No injuries or damage other than to the bench were reported, police said.

It was unclear whether the blast was aimed at the embassy, or whether anyone was inside the embassy at the time. Embassy officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Police said a small explosive device was placed on a bench in a shack located on the grounds of a nearby kindergarten playground.