Belarus: Protesters defy President's warning

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The Independent Online

Up to 1,000 people turned out in the Belarus capital yesterday in a rare protest against economic hardship, defying a warning by President Alexander Lukashenko that he would "strike hard" against them.

Police sealed off Minsk's Oktyabrskaya Square close to Mr Lukashenko's main administration building, but several hundred people massed in nearby streets. The protesters – who responded to a call on social networking sites that was sharply critical of Mr Lukashenko – carried no slogans, and they were largely silent apart from some rhythmic clapping of hands.

Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic for 17 years and whose authoritarian style has led to sanctions by Western governments, declared on Tuesday that he would "strike hard" to suppress any fresh protests against his policies.

Signs of unrest have been growing in the tightly policed state with the onset of a severe economic crisis that has led to a 36 per cent devaluation of the rouble and soaring inflation.

The opposition is in disarray after a police crackdown and mass arrests following a protest rally on 19 December against Mr Lukashenko's election for a fourth straight term.

Several opposition leaders who ran against him in the vote, which Western monitoring bodies also denounced as suspect, have since been jailed.

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