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Police Silent As 3,000 Democracy Supporters Rally In Minsk

March 2, 2006 -- Some 3,000 opposition supporters rallied in the Belarus capital Minsk tonight amid rising tensions in the runup to the Belarus presidential election on March 19.

Alyaksandr Milenkevich, the leader of the opposition and main challenger to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, addressed the crowd and predicted that Belarus will soon be a free country.

"Dear friends, I congratulate you. Freedom, justice, and the truth are coming to Belarus. And we will win the right to live as humans, to live in Europe and to be a free country. Long live Belarus!"

The crowd chanted back, "Long live Belarus!"

The authorities had said the rally was unsanctioned and said they had the right to use force against demonstrators. Some 1,000 police were reportedly at the scene but did not intervene, and the rally ended peacefully.

The United States today sharply criticized the Belarus authorities, saying they are trying to undermine democratic institutions. A U.S. statement said the authorities had harassed and intimidated non-government organizations, opposition political figures and civil society groups.

Lukashenka today warned Western nations again not to interfere in his country's affairs. He urged vigilance against "provocations."

Earlier today, another of Lukashenka's challengers in the presidential poll -- Alyaksandr Kazulin of the opposition Social Democrats -- was detained for several hours and allegedly beaten by security agents. He has since been released.

(compiled from agency reports)

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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