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Belarus Election Violence: Presidential Candidates Beaten, Arrested (PHOTOS)

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MINSK, Belarus (Associated Press) — Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko has won a fourth term with nearly 80 percent of the vote, election officials said Monday, hours after truncheon-wielding riot police dispersed thousands of demonstrators who protested alleged vote fraud.

The Central Election Commission said that Lukashenko collected 79.67 percent of the vote in Sunday's presidential election, according to preliminary results. The next-highest vote among the nine candidates was just 2.56 percent.

The announcement followed a violent night in which riot police dispersed thousands of demonstrators who massed outside the main government office to denounce alleged vote-rigging.

PHOTOS:

Protesters broke windows and glass doors of the government building, which also houses the Central Election Commission, but they were repelled by riot police waiting inside. Hundreds more riot police and Interior Ministry troops then arrived in trucks and sent most of the demonstrators fleeing. Some tried to hide in the courtyards of nearby apartment buildings, but were bludgeoned by troops.

Several of the candidates who ran against Lukashenko were arrested and the top opposition leader, Vladimir Neklyaev was forcibly taken from the hospital where he was being treated after he and two other candidates were severely beaten during clashes with government forces.

Neklyaev's aide said seven men in civilian clothing wrapped him in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him outside as his wife screamed, locked in a neighboring room. His location is currently unknown. Neklyaev and two other candidates had been severely beaten in clashes with government forces.

Russia and the European Union are closely monitoring the election, having offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction.

Lukashenko in recent years has quarreled intensively with the Kremlin, his main sponsor, as Russia raised prices for the below-market gas and oil on which Belarus' economy depends. However, his tone changed this month after Russia agreed to drop tariffs for oil exported to Belarus – a concession worth an estimated $4 billion a year.

Lukashenko recently has also been working to curry favor with the West, which harshly criticized his 16-year rule for human rights abuses and repressive politics. Last week, he called for improved ties with the U.S., which in previous years he had cast as an enemy. But the violent dispersal of opposition protests makes a rapprochement with the West unlikely.