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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarussians Gather for Memorial and Protest

ReutersBelarussian soldiers goose-stepping as they lay a wreath at a Minsk memorial.
MINSK -- More than 5,000 opposition protesters massed in the Belarussian capital on Wednesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster despite police fencing off a downtown square where they had planned to rally.

The opposition challenges government claims that the consequences of Chernobyl are being remedied adequately, and it strongly objects to programs to resettle people in fallout-contaminated areas that had been evacuated.

Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition candidate who challenged authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in last month's disputed election, said the closure of the square showed authorities were scared.

Oktyabrskaya Square was the same plaza in Minsk where an unprecedented week of protests were held in March after presidential elections that the opposition says were fraudulent.

"If the authorities are afraid of us, that's OK. But if the authorities are afraid to talk with the people, that's a tragedy," Milinkevich told protesters.

Prosecutors had summoned Milinkevich earlier Wednesday and, he said, warned him not to appear at the start of the evening rally commemorating the nuclear explosion that covered nearly one-quarter of Belarus' territory with radioactive fallout. He vowed to defy their order not to be at the square, which is both the symbolic center of the opposition and across the street from the presidential administration building.

Authorities had given permission for the rally but banned Milinkevich and other political figures from appearing at the march's starting point of Oktyabrskaya Square. As the crowd tried to reach the square, police used loudspeakers to order them to move about 2 kilometers away to the Academy of Sciences, where authorities had authorized the rally to take place.

By the time the crowd began to march toward the academy, more than 5,000 people were participating. Protesters stayed on the sidewalks and carefully observed rules, even using underground crossings to cross streets along the way. They were accompanied by police in trucks, reminding them through loudspeakers: "This action is not permitted. Participants will be held responsible."

"I want to live in a free country where there is no fear," said Andrei Denisevich, a 23-year-old engineer who said he was taking part in an opposition rally for the first time. "It's very frightening for me, but I came to this protest. Every citizen must make his civic position known."

Antonina Vezhnavets, 16, said she also was frightened. "I am afraid not only of ecological Chernobyls, but of political Chernobyls. We are told in school that there are no problems in Belarus, neither ecological nor political, but the main thing is there is no freedom," she said, carrying the white-and-red flag of the opposition.

The head of Lukashenko's administration, Gennady Nevuiglas, told an official commemoration of the Chernobyl explosion Wednesday that "the authorities are strongly resolving the question of rehabilitating those who suffered."

"We have shown that one can live on the contaminated territory. We are preserving life there. We have returned hope to the people, and that's important," he said at the ceremony outside a church dedicated to the memory of Chernobyl's victims.

About 1,000 spectators were on hand for the ceremony, including some of the so-called liquidators, the hundreds of thousands of workers who were pressed into service by Soviet authorities to clean up the heavily radioactive areas of the plant and its surroundings.