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Rival Belorussian protests take place in Minsk as EU ponders new sanctions

THOUSANDS protested outside the Belarusian state broadcaster today demanding that it tells the truth about the current demonstrations, triggered by allegations of vote-rigging in last week’s presidential election.

Alexander Lukashenko was declared victor in the August 9 poll with around 80 per cent of the vote, compared to just over 10 per cent for opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

But she claimed to be the real winner of the election, insisting there were widespread irregularities and that if the votes were counted correctly she would have received between 50 and 60 per cent.

Opposition supporters are angered over the state broadcaster’s refusal to cover the demonstrations and warned that nearly 7,000 people have been arrested in the aftermath of last week’s vote, with those detained claiming to have been tortured.

Several journalists have resigned in protest at the lack of coverage, with a strike planned for today.

From exile in Lithuania, Ms Tikhanovskaya called on Friday for a weekend of “peaceful mass gatherings” and the transfer of power from Mr Lukashenko.

“Don’t stand on the sidelines,” she urged Belarusians after the European Union said it was considering new targeted sanctions, branding the election “neither free nor fair.”

On Saturday the prime ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia “expressed deep concern at the violent crackdown ... and the political repression of the opposition by the authorities.” The United States has also condemned the vote.

But while opponents of Mr Lukashenko took to the streets, his supporters organised their own rally in the capital Minsk.

Addressing the rally, the president accused Western powers of threatening his country’s sovereignty, saying they were gathering military units in countries along Belarus’s western borders. He denounced suggestions that the presidential vote should be rerun.

He had previously expressed concerns over Nato military exercises currently underway in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania.

Mr Lukashenko claimed on Saturday that Russian President Vladimir Putin offered “comprehensive assistance” to Belarus if it is subjected to external military threats.

Communist parties in Italy and Russia have warned against another US-sponsored “colour revolution” similar to those that took place in Georgia and Ukraine.

The Communist Party of Belorussia welcomed the “unconditional victory” of Mr Lukashenko, calling it the natural consequence of the economic growth of the republic since he came to power in 1994.

It blamed the protests on “subversive work” by “specially trained instigators, from outright fascists to inveterate criminals,” saying that it enjoyed the support of at least 18 fraternal communist parties.

It warned that “foreign puppeteers” were aiming to carry out a coup in Belarus. “It is clear that if they win, the country will face bloody chaos and landslide degradation,” a statement from the party central committee said.

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