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Thousands protest over 'vote fraud'

In the biggest challenge to authoritarian Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko in 16 years in power, thousands of demonstrators massed outside the main government office to protest over alleged vote fraud in Sunday's presidential election, but club-swinging riot police drove them off and beat many.

The violent night left in doubt the next step for Belarus, which is of interest to Moscow because of its position as a buffer between Russia and the West. The West, for its part, has been offended by Mr Lukashenko's harsh rule and his resistance to change.

Three of the candidates who ran against Lukashenko were arrested and the top opposition leader, Vladimir Neklyayev, was forcefully taken from hospital by unknown men in civilian clothes, activists said.

Mr Neklyayev's aide said seven men wrapped him in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him outside as his wife screamed, locked in a neighbouring room. His whereabouts are currently unknown. Mr Neklyayev and two other candidates were severely beaten in clashes with government forces.

The demonstration and its violent end all happened even before preliminary results were announced. But opposition supporters were convinced that Mr Lukashenko would fake the tally. In previous elections, none of which were judged free and fair by Western observers, Mr Lukashenko tallied 80% or more.

This year's election had given tantalising hints that the repressive political climate might be changing in the ex-Soviet state. Not only were nine candidates allowed to challenge Mr Lukashenko, they were even given unprecedented access to state broadcast media to conduct debates.

But if Mr Lukashenko had been looking, or trying to look, like he was flirting with democracy, the romance was clearly over within three hours of the polls closing.

The crowd that gathered in central Minsk, estimated by the opposition at tens of thousands, was significantly larger than protesters who massed after the 2006 elections. But those protests were allowed to go on sporadically for a week; Sunday's didn't make it until midnight.

As riot police beat on their shields to drive the crowd away from the government offices, the defiant crowd matched the rhythmic blows with the chant "We will come back". However, it was unclear how long such bravado could last in the face of harsh crackdowns.

"Repression and arrests have stopped the wave of protests," said candidate Yaroslav Romanchuk. "Street democracy is over."

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