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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Beat Defiant Protesters

APA line of riot police sealing off streets from opposition supporters Saturday in Minsk. Opposition leaders had planned a rally on Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad.
MINSK -- Black-clad riot police clubbed demonstrators as government opponents marched in defiance of a show of force by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko that drew Western sanctions.

Nearly a week into protests set off by a disputed election that handed Lukashenko a third term, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told a crowd of thousands Saturday that momentum was growing to bring democracy to Belarus.

But he acknowledged that it would take some time, and put an end to immediate tensions by asking his supporters to come to another big rally in a month.

Two days of confrontation and wildly swinging emotions left two huge questions for the country: How much dissent are the authorities willing to allow and how much support does the opposition have?

Milinkevich spoke at an impromptu rally held at a Minsk park after police shoved back protesters from the central city square where they had intended to gather.

Police did not interfere with the park rally that attracted around 7,000 people -- raising hopes that security forces' long history of violence against dissenters was softening.

But authorities showed their tolerance had distinct limits after rally participants tried to march to a jail where some of the hundreds of people arrested over the past week were being held.

A three-deep phalanx of riot police with shields confronted the marchers at a railroad underpass, then pushed them up the street, beating some bloody with truncheons and arresting about 20. At least four percussion grenades were detonated; Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov later denied the explosions were set off by police but did not say what caused them.

The human rights group International Helsinki Federation said one demonstrator was severely injured with a fractured skull.

Opposition presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin was detained and beaten in the clash, and his wife said Sunday that his condition was satisfactory.

A Russian journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was detained and beaten earlier in the city center, his father said.

Milinkevich called for the next rally to take place April 26, apparently aiming to end the immediate tensions of daily rallies and to give the opposition time to plot strategy. The day is the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion; Belarus was in the direct path of the radiation and the anniversary is likely to underline discontent over Lukashenko's moves to repopulate evacuated areas of the contamination zone.

Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Police beating protesters heading to a jail where others were held Saturday.

"I am tired of being afraid, and the fear is leaving me," said Yelena Sokolovskaya, 44, an accountant, at the park rally.

She said the government's claims that the economy is thriving were "a lie -- Milinkevich speaks the truth."

Before dawn Friday, police raided an opposition tent camp on Minsk's main square, arresting hundreds of demonstrators who had been part of unprecedented round-the-clock protests. Opposition supporters returned to Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad at twilight Friday, but police seized some of them and pushed the rest of the small crowd down the street and prevented pedestrians on their way home from work from walking through the square.

The European Union decided Friday to punish Lukashenko with "restrictions" that will likely include a travel ban from Europe.

The EU decision puts Lukashenko on the same EU blacklist as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Burma's military leaders, all of whom have a freeze on their European assets and visa bans against them. EU officials said they were drafting plans to expand specific measures, which currently apply only to six top Belarussian officials and had not included Lukashenko.

Sergei Grits / AP

Milinkevich visiting his press secretary at a detention center on Saturday.

In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the United States would join the EU in applying targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions.

The measures, however, seemed unlikely to influence Lukashenko. In a statement late Friday, the Foreign Ministry said the sanctions had "no prospects," and that Belarus reserved the right to take retaliatory measures.

Meanwhile, about 80 pro-Lukashenko youth activists picketed the U.S. Embassy in Minsk for about an hour on Sunday, shouting "Hands off Belarus." Protesters also picketed the Polish Embassy.

In Moscow, police broke up an unauthorized protest staged near the Foreign Ministry in support of Belarus' opposition Sunday. About 10 activists from Russian opposition political parties and youth movements tried to unfurl banners reading "Lukashenko, No! OSCE, Yes" and "Russia, Don't Support Luka" but were immediately stopped by riot police.