MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The plaintive meows haunt the people of Minsk in the dead of night.

They come, activists say, from hundreds of stray cats who find themselves locked in basements by Belarus authorities — and doomed to starvation.

City authorities have been sealing off apartment block basements to keep out rats. A tragic consequence is that cats get trapped inside, left to waste away.

"My heart aches to hear how the animals, whom they have walled up, are screaming day and night," said 72-year-old Antonina Gayenko, a retiree who was feeding some cats through small holes in the iron plates used to board up the basements.

"They have doomed them to death from thirst and hunger."

Elena Titova, leader of the animal rights group Protect Life, says the authoritarian ex-Soviet nation has no long-term shelters to house stray animals. She estimated that about 9,000 strays have been killed in the capital alone over the past three years.

"Killing the animals with impunity has become a government policy," Titova said Monday. "This barbarian policy can be described as 'No animal, no problem.' They find it easier to kill them as they don't have to build shelters."

Stray animals in Belarus are placed in shelters for five days and then killed by injection when owners don't show up.

City authorities say they must block off the basements of apartment buildings in line with Soviet-era health rules.

"Cats and residents will scream for a while and then they will calm down," said Alexander Yubkov, a city worker who has welded iron covers on basement windows.

He said that if workers did not secure basements, "sanitary officials will come and order us to pay a fine."

Minsk resident Karolina Litvinova said authorities don't bother to check whether there are no animals left in a basement before shutting it.

Residents have drilled bigger holes in the iron plates to allow the cats to escape.

"We have saved five cats that have been walled up," said Litvinova.

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  • A kitten is pictured on December 5, 2009 during a cat exibition in Moscow. (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A stray kitten is posed for a photograph at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home on August 18, 2009 in London, England. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home is seeing a sharp rise in the number of cats requiring a home with 143 of the 145 shelter's pens full. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  • A cat and her kitten play with a squirrel, which was rescued off the streets, in Envigado, Antioquia Department, Colombia, on February 16, 2010. (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Kittens are pictured in a bucket, before the arrival of Britain's Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, in London on October 27, 2010. The Duchess opened the new cattery during her visit to the animal refuge, which is celebrating it's 150th anniversary this year. (Chris Jackson/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A volunteer displays a newly-born cat delivered by a rescued stray cat at the home of cat lover Duo Zirong on July 10, 2007 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

  • Two less than a week old kittens of a jungle cat (lebis Chaus) lie inside the forest department office in Mumbai, 11 June 2007. Three abondoned kittens, found in the jungles of Aarey milk colony, on the outskirts of the city, were later handed over to the forest authorities, likely to be released in the Borivali national park in Mumbai. (PAL PILLAI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Boggles, a stray kitten, one of the lucky animals at the Barnes Hill RSPCA Animal Rescue Centre, has found a caring home on 4 April 2007, Birmingham, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

  • Milly, a 13-week-old kitten looks through the glass of her pen as she waits to be re-homed at The Society for Abandoned Animals Sanctuary in Sale, Manchester, which is facing an urgent cash crisis and possible closure on July 27, 2010 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)


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