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Thousands Of Opposition Supporters Rally Peacefully In Minsk

Several thousand opposition activists rallied tonight in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, amid heavy police presence, but the rally reportedly ended peacefully. The unsanctioned gathering came amid rising tensions less than three weeks before presidential elections. The United States, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) expressed concern over a deterioration in the campaign atmosphere, while President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's warned the West to stay out of his country's internal affairs.

PRAGUE, March 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- "Long live Belarus! Long live Belarus!"

That was the chant tonight from some 3,000 supporters of Alyaksandr Milinkievich, the leader of the opposition and Lukashenka's main challenger in the March 19 vote, who gathered for a pre-election rally in central Minsk.

Addressing the crowd before it dispersed peacefully, Milinkievich called for freedom and justice in Belarus.

"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! "

About 1,000 police were reported to be deployed at the site of the planned rally, which authorities have called a provocation.

President Lukashenka, who is seeking a third term, urged vigilance against such "provocations" during a speech in the capital today.

"This election campaign costs our armed forces, our security forces a lot of nerves and health. The tension is so high, you cannot even imagine. But government officials have received one task from me: do not be drawn into any kind of provocation, wait calmly until March 19 and then the people will decide."

Lukashenka also said Westerners have nothing to teach Belarus about human rights since they have "plunged the entire Middle East into blood."

Meanwhile a U.S. statement at the OSCE said there is a "growing atmosphere of intimidation" against non-government organizations, opposition political figures, and civil society groups in Belarus.

U.S. spokesman Bruce Connuck accused authorities of manufacturing conspiracies and crises to justify repression.

In Warsaw, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) pointed out a "serious deterioration" in the campaign atmosphere.

And in Brussels, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, Krisztina Nagy, urged the Belarusian authorities to ensure equal campaigning rights to all candidates in the election process.

"We are ready to take up targeted sanctions against those responsible individuals if the elections are not conducted in a democratic manner."

Earlier today, one of Lukashenka's other challengers in the presidential poll -- Alyaksandr Kazulin --was detained for several hours and allegedly beaten by security agents after he tried to attend Lukashenka's speech. Kazulin is the leader of the opposition Social Democrats.

(RFE/RL's Russian and Belarus Services contributed to this report)

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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