MINSK, Belarus — Police in Belarus attacked peaceful protesters Wednesday, beating and detaining hundreds in the latest series of rallies calling for the ouster of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, witnesses and a human rights group said.
The demonstrators assembled in eight different parts of the capital, Minsk, and 10 other towns and cities in the former Soviet nation, clapping in unison as a show of solidarity against Lukashenko, who they accuse of exacerbating the financial crisis and ostracizing Belarus from the civilized world.
The Vesna human rights group estimated several thousand participants nationwide, with at least 300 detained – among them at least 10 journalists.
Public anger at Lukashenko is high as the country weathers its worst economic downturn since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
In central Minsk, police beat up and arrested dozens of protesters outside the main ice skating rink, bundling them aboard unmarked buses. In one incident just prior to the rally, an Associated Press reporter saw about 20 police in civilian clothes jump out of a bus and set upon a group of five young people, knocking them to the ground before punching and kicking them in their faces and torso. The group was also whisked away. The reporter witnessed at least 30 arrests.
"The authorities have adopted a new tactic – now the arrests begin before the protest starts," Vesna spokesman Valentin Stefanovich told the AP.
Police formed human chains that swept across the squares where people had attempted to gather, grabbing the more stubborn of the protesters and throwing them in buses. Anyone who slowed from a brisk walk was considered a participant and seized.
In Grodno, about 185 miles (300 kilometers) from Minsk, about 500 people managed to assemble on the central square and engage in a few minutes of hand-clapping, but their joy was short-lived as police crushed the rally, rounding up 70, Sergei Syf, also of Vesna, told the AP.
"They beat up even women and children – they grab them by the hair, by the clothes, and throw them into police vans."
The protest wave is a new movement organized over the Internet by a group called Revolution by Social Networks. In response, authorities have periodically blocked access to some of the sites, but failed to achieve a total lockout. Wednesday's was the fifth protest by the grass-roots organization.
Earlier this week, Belarusian courts sentenced more than 100 protesters to five to 15 days in prison for taking part in unsanctioned rallies.