Belarus president 'used fraud and violence to cling to power'

International observers and Western governments accused Belarus's strongman leader of using fraud and violence to remain in power after more than 16 years of repressive rule, saying president Alexander Lukashenko's re-election this weekend was seriously flawed.

• Opposition supporters rally in front of government buildings in downtown Minsk amid claims of widespread vote-rigging in Sunday's presidential election. Picture: AP

Seven of the nine candidates opposing Mr Lukashenko were taken into custody, including one who witnesses said was beaten by government forces, then dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes policemen.

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The country's election commission declared Mr Lukashenko got almost 80 per cent of the vote in a preliminary count, handing him a fourth term.

But the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the count in Sunday's vote was "bad or very bad" in half the country's areas where observers watched the count. It also strongly criticised the violent dispersal by riot police of a post-election protest rally.

Mr Lukashenko bristled at criticism of how police handled the demonstration, saying it was beyond the OSCE election observers' mandate.

"What does what happened at night have to do with the election? The election was over," he said.

He also appeared to dismiss any chance of reform, saying "there won't be any more muddle-headed democracy in the country".

Mr Lukashenko's continuing grip on power makes Belarus one of the last relics of Soviet-style dictatorship, a nation of ten million on the edge of Europe with overwhelming state control of politics, industry and media.

The country's continuing repression has been an embarrassment to the European Union, which offered €3 billion in aid to Belarus if the elections were judged to be free and fair.

Despair and anger gripped many in the country yesterday.

"Lawlessness, dictatorship - what else can you call this?" said Natalia Pohodnya, waiting in the snow outside a Minsk jail where her son was being held after participating in a demonstration. "They are beating our kids!"

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The run-up to the election 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.

But evidence of fraud before and during the vote drove tens of thousands of protesters into the streets at night.

Riot police bearing shields and swinging truncheons dispersed the protesters from near the main government building after some in the crowd broke windows and doors.Police also arrested seven of the nine candidates opposing Mr Lukashenko.

"A positive assessment of this election isn't possible," said the OSCE observer mission's head, Geert-Hinrich Ahrens.

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 Mr Neklyayev in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him away.

Mr Lukashenko, 56, has allowed no independent broadcast media, kept 80 per cent of industry under Soviet-style state control and suppressed opposition with police raids and pressure.

His fiery populism and efforts to maintain a Soviet-era social safety net have kept him popular with the working class and elderly.