700 hold banned anti-government protest in Belarus' capital

MINSK: About 700 demonstrators defied a heavy riot-police presence in the center of the Belarusian capital to hold a banned anti-government protest Saturday.

A cordon of club-wielding police blocked the demonstrators' movement along Minsk's main avenue near the Academy of Science. Hulking police detention trucks were deployed in the city center.

Earlier, police raided the office of the human-rights group Vesna. About 30 of its activists were detained, said Oleg Gulak of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

In the days preceding the demonstration, more than 100 opposition supporters were sentenced to jail terms of three to 15 days, Vesna reported before the raid. Prominent opposition figure Vladimir Neklayev reportedly was pulled off a train by police during the night while trying to travel to Minsk.

The authoritarian former Soviet republic has seen an unusually persistent wave of protests over the past two months against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994. After tolerating the initial protests, authorities cracked down. Lukashenko this week alleged that a "fifth column" of foreign-supported agitators was trying to bring him down.

Saturday's demonstrators shouted slogans including "shame" and "basta (enough)" and deployed the red-and-white flag that is the opposition's symbol. The flag was first used by the short-lived independent Belarusian People's Republic in 1918 and again after independence from the Soviet Union, but was replaced in 1995 after Lukashenko gained power.

In his 23 years as president, Lukashenko has stifled dissent and free media and retained much of the Soviet-style command economy.

The protests this year initially focused on his unpopular "anti-parasite" law that calls for a $250 tax on anyone who works less than six months a year, but doesn't register with the state labor exchange. But the protests broadened into general dissatisfaction with his rule, which some critics have characterised as Europe's last dictatorship.

Protests attracted hundreds on Saturday in Brest and Grodno, two other large cities. No arrests were immediately reported.