Security forces in Belarus have detained over 600 people, including seven opposition candidates, after smashing a mass rally protesting fraud in the landslide re-election of president Alexander Lukashenko.
Western governments have been quick to condemn the vote and the crackdown, with the United States saying it does not consider the election results legitimate.
According to the central election commission, Mr Lukashenko – described as Europe’s last dictator by Washington – won the poll outright with 79.6 per cent of the vote on the back of a massive voter turnout of over 90 per cent. His nearest rival received less than 3 per cent in polls.
Many observers say the actual voting went smoothly, but counting the ballots was another story.
“I know for certain that in Minsk that it couldn’t be like 80 per cent anyway,” said accredited monitor Tatiana Chuletskaya, from the European Humanity University.
“We are observing about 350 polling stations in Minsk and in the region, and in all polling stations there were no such results.
“In my polling station, Mr Lukashenko got only 56 per cent. In other stations, in Minsk especially, he got less. He didn’t get more than 70 per cent anywhere.”
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission said the poll showed the ex-Soviet state was still a “considerable way” from holding democratic elections, noting a flawed vote count.
“This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed,” OSCE spokesman Tony Lloyd said.
“Frankly, the people of Belarus deserve better and in particular I now expect the government to account for the arrests of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists.”
Tens of thousands of outraged voters braved arrest to gather in central Minsk overnight, some trying to storm government buildings and smashing glass doors.
But a reinforced contingent of anti-riot police arrived, encircling the protesters and taking hundreds into waiting police vans.
AFP correspondents saw several protesters beaten with truncheons.
Mr Lukashenko announced at a news conference that 639 protesters were being held in Minsk detention facilities.
“What was attempted yesterday in Minsk is banditry. These are vandals,” Mr Lukashenko told reporters.
“There is not going to be a revolution in Belarus.”
Analyst Leonid Zaiko, of the Strategy Independent Research Centre in Minsk, says Mr Lukashenko’s message will be widely publicised.
“As for Mr Lukashenko, all the TV, all the radio, they make only positive estimation of this procedure,” he said.
“It’s like in the Soviet Union, like in Brezhnev times, but to my mind the official propaganda – it’s more effective.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the poll could not be seen as legitimate and condemned the crackdown.
“The United States strongly condemns the actions that the government of Belarus has taken to undermine the democratic process and [the use of] disproportionate force against political activists, civil society representatives and journalists,” Mr Gibbs said in a written statement.
“We call for the immediate release of all presidential candidates and the hundreds of protestors who were detained on December 19 and 20.”
EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton condemned the use of violence and urged the immediate release of those detained.
But Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who has had a prickly relationship with Mr Lukashenko, showed no sign of wanting to intervene over the police action, saying the election “is an internal matter for Belarus”.
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