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Belarus election 'seriously flawed'

An international observers mission has said it has found serious flaws in a presidential election that kept Belarus' strongman leader in power after more than 16 years of repressive rule.

The Organisation for Security and Coooperation in Europe's mission said the count in Sunday's vote was "bad or very bad" in half the country's precincts.

It also strongly criticised the violent dispersal by riot police of a post-election protest rally.

The country's election commission claimed President Alexander Lukashenko got almost 80% of the vote in a preliminary count, handing a fourth term in office to the man who was run the former Soviet state since 1994.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered late on Sunday to denounce alleged fraud in the vote.

Police beat and detained hundreds and arrested seven of the nine candidates opposing Mr Lukashenko. One of the top opposition candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev, was beaten in a clash with government forces as he tried to lead a column of supporters to the protest. He was taken to a hospital, but his aide said seven men in civilian clothing later wrapped Neklyayev in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him away as his wife screamed.

Mr Lukashenko has allowed no independent broadcast media, kept 80% of industry under Soviet-style state control and suppressed opposition with police raids and pressure.

The election had raised a glimmer of hope that Mr Lukashenko was relaxing his grip. The number of candidates was unprecedented, they were allowed comparative freedom to campaign and were even allotted time for debates on state media. Belarus had also passed some reforms in its election code.

But "this election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed. The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserved better. And, in particular, I now expect the government to account for the arrests of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists," said Tony Lloyd, one of the mission leaders.

The US Embassy said Washington "strongly condemns all election day violence in Belarus." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that "it's not acceptable to harass, beat or arrest opposition candidates and their supporters who want to exert their right to freedom of expression."

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