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Belarus-OppositionPro 1stLd-Writethru 03-25 Web

Thousands clash with police

Police beat demonstrators with truncheons and hauled them into waiting trucks Tuesday as thousands of opposition protesters turned out in defiance of a government ban on a Belarusian holiday.

President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian government had vowed to prevent any rallies marking what the opposition has traditionally called "Freedom Day." March 25 is the anniversary of the 1918 declaration of the first, short-lived independent Belarusian state, and a traditional day of demonstration by the opposition.

Opposition groups reported security agents arresting activists around the country ahead of Tuesday’s demonstrations. But thousands of protesters chanting "Long Live Belarus!" and waving opposition and European Union flags attempted to converge on a central square in the capital Minsk.

Police blocked off the square and used loudspeakers to warn the protesters, many of whom appeared to be students, that the gathering was illegal. After about an hour, police began wading into the crowd, beating demonstrators and violently hauling them away.

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One protester, a middle-aged woman, was tripped and tackled by riot police as she tried to run away, then dragged screaming by her hair to a waiting police bus. An Associated Press reporter saw dozens taken away by police; the Interior Ministry reported more than 80 people detained.

"The authorities have resorted to extreme measures," said Anatoly Lebedko, an opposition leader. "By doing this, they are showing to the world that Belarus is a dictatorship with no freedom of speech nor freedom to gather."

Hundreds of protesters later broke off from the main demonstration. Chanting "Down With Luka!" and "Freedom!" they tried to march down a central street to the presidential administration building.

Their path also was blocked by trucks and officers in riot gear who arrested many of the marchers.

Police have beaten and arrested protesters at similar protests in past years.

"Of course today more forces and equipment will be deployed. Any unsanctioned march will be prevented in accordance with the necessary laws," Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov said ahead of the event.

Lukashenko has been dubbed "Europe’s last dictator" by the U.S. and some European nations for his government’s efforts to quash opposition groups and independent media.

On Monday, the United States said it would cut in half staffing at its embassy in Minsk, bowing to Belarus’ demands amid deteriorating relations between the two countries.

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Tensions have worsened following Washington’s imposition of sanctions last year on the state-controlled oil-processing and chemicals company Belneftekhim.

A Belarusian state television report this week accused the U.S. Embassy of setting up a spy ring in the ex-Soviet republic. On Tuesday, Valery Nadtochaev, a spokesman for Belarus’ top security agency, said the report was true. He refused to give further details.

The top U.S. diplomat in Belarus, Jonathan Moore, denied the United States was running a spy ring and said the embassy had given the Foreign Ministry a complete list of its employees.

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