A massive demonstration against alleged vote rigging in Belarus’ presidential election turned violent Sunday after protesters tried to storm a government building housing the country’s Central Election Commission.
Moving between Christmas trees and a massive statue of Vladimir Lenin, protesters broke windows and glass doors. In a counter attack, riot police poured out of the darkened building poured, beating and injuring dozens of protesters with clubs. Police detained hundreds of people, including three presidential candidates.
The late night violence came after the largest demonstration in more than a decade against Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president since 1994.
Chanting “Freedom for Belarus” and “Down with Lukashenko,” a crowd gathered in October Square immediately after polls closed. Opposition speakers charged that Lukashenko had run a fraudulent election, controlling the vote counting machinery.
A few hours earlier, Mr. Lukashenko predicted on national television that no one would turn out for the rally. “Don’t worry,” he said. “No one is going to be on that square,” he said.
During the afternoon, access was denied to the Internet websites of the two leading opposition presidential candidates – Andrei Sannikov and Vladimir Neklyaev – and to the website of Charter 97, a Belarus human rights group.
Mr. Neklyaev never made it to October Square. Police attacked the candidate as he led a small group to the demonstration. An aide, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Alexander, said he escaped the violence.
Alexander said the police ordered them face down in the snow, then beat Mr. Neklyaev so badly that he was taken to the hospital with a concussion.
Another aide, Vasilli asked, “What kind of democracy is this where they beat up the future president before a ballot box has even been opened?”
Despite the attack, an estimated 40,000 Belarussians made it to the square. Authorities tried to drown out their speeches by playing Soviet era music through loudspeakers. The crowd pushed aside traffic policemen and flowed down Independence Avenue.
Andrei Sannikov, another presidential candidate, led the march to the government administration building. “Our goal is now the Central Election Committee,” he said.
Mr. Sannikov was detained after he led the march.
Cars honked their horns in solidarity as the marchers poured down the eight lane central avenue. No windows were broken. No graffiti was sprayed. Protesters seemed jubilant with the massive turnout — the largest demonstration that many said they had ever seen in this tightly controlled nation.
Sasha, a retired 70 year old factory worker, said he had come out because he was disgusted with the fraud he saw as an election observer. He said that 70 valid ballots disappeared from the polling station he was monitoring.
President Lukashenko says he wanted to conduct an election that would be deemed fair in the West. The European Union has offered up to $4 billion in credits to Belarus on the condition that the country hold a free and fair presidential election.
For Europe, the main Western observer group is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent 400 observers here. On Monday, the OSCE is expected to give its report on the election.