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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Prepares for a Swift Inauguration

ReutersA Milinkevich supporter sitting by his tent at the opposition's camp Thursday on Minsk's Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad.
MINSK -- Election officials in Belarus made plans Thursday for a swift inauguration of President Alexander Lukashenko, apparently aiming to entrench him in a new five-year term amid persistent protests over a disputed vote condemned by the West.

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said assailants attacked a top aide, one of the latest incidents in what a leading international security body called a campaign of persecution against Belarussians challenging Lukashenko's landslide win.

Daily demonstrations have drawn thousands of people to a main Minsk square, where a few hundred have kept up an around-the-clock vigil in a tent camp since the day after Sunday's election despite freezing temperatures.

The protests are unprecedented in Belarus, where Lukashenko has been silencing dissent since his first election in 1994, but such numbers appear unlikely to force a new election in the tightly controlled nation of 10 million.

Viktor Korniyenko, a deputy chief on Milinkevich's staff, was beaten by two assailants in the entrance to his apartment building and was hospitalized in serious condition, opposition spokesman Pavel Mazheika said.

"They are hitting us where it hurts," Milinkevich told the AP after visiting Korniyenko in a hospital. "The authorities have stepped up their repressions," he said, adding that such actions "cannot break the will for victory."

The attack came a day after state television broadcast a recording of an alleged conversation in which Korniyenko consulted with a Polish NGO, the Batory Foundation, on strategies for protests against Lukashenko's third term. According to a transcript of the recording, printed Thursday on the front page of the newspaper published by Lukashenko's administration, the representative told Korniyenko that opposition leaders should not urge a halt to protests on Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad and should boost the size of the protest tent camp.

The allegations fit in with Lukashenko's repeated claims that the opposition is supported by Western forces seeking to bring him down and control Belarus. State television has also broadcast reports saying the protests are financed by Western embassies, allegations the diplomatic missions deny.

The Central Elections Commission released final election results saying Lukashenko received 83 percent of the vote and Milinkevich just 6.1 percent. The commission chief, Lidia Yermoshina, said the inauguration would take place March 31, but elections commission secretary Nikolai Lozovik told the AP that date was tentative and that it would probably be held later.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, is genuinely popular with many Belarussians who credit him with providing economic and political stability. But Milinkevich says Lukashenko's official tally is "monstrously inflated" and is calling for a new vote.

Early Thursday, he told tent camp residents entering the fourth day of their protest that they had defied expectations by maintaining their vigil for so long.

Milinkevich said that although the demonstrations had been comparatively small and had not succeeded in achieving their demand of new elections, they represented a big step forward.

"Nobody had expected what has happened here," he said.

Police have not moved to disperse the protesters, but they have picked up many would-be participants and supporters. Some have been released and others tried and sentenced, usually to a week or two in jail.

A top trans-Atlantic democracy and security body said Thursday that it had information of about 200 detentions in the three days following the election, and called on authorities to release those detained in connection with the protest.

"The Belarussian authorities must immediately put an end to the persecution of their opponents," the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Karel de Gucht, said in a statement.

Gearing up for a major test of strength, Milinkevich emphasized his call for protesters to come out in force on Saturday, the anniversary of the declaration of the first, short-lived independent Belarussian republic in 1918.