Police break up peaceful march in Minsk

Officers of a special task force broke up a peaceful march that a hundred young opposition activists attempted to stage in downtown Minsk on February 14 on the occasion of St. Valentine`s Day.

Around 50 people gathered on Saturday evening on Yakub Kolas Square, defying the city authorities` ban on the St. Valentine`s Day march of the opposition youth group Malady Front. Fifty people more joined them later.

Holding white and red balloons, Belarus` historically national white-red-white flags and flags of Malady Front and the European Union, participants distributed among passers-by small Malady Front flags featuring words, "Demonstration of Love."

Many plainclothes police officers were seen on the square.

After staging a short performance, the demonstrators headed along Independence Avenue toward Freedom Square. At the first crossroad, they confronted the riot police who blocked the road. The police warned that they would use force and "special means" to disperse the unsanctioned march.

As soon as the demonstrators started singing Belarus` national anthem Mahutny Bozha, the officers began to push them violently back to the square. The police were tearing out flags from youths and smashing the staffs. Malady Front leader Zmister Dashkevich was beaten. His associates helped him reach the subway station.

No arrests were reported.

"The police breakup of the peaceful demonstration staged in Minsk on the occasion of St. Valentine`s Day shows the real content of the authorities` declared liberalization," Mr. Dashkevich commented to BelaPAN. "Their liberalization boils down to showy changes that target foreign consumers. No fundamental changes are taking place. Malady Front wanted to stage a legal, peaceful and fair demonstration, but the police preferred the cleanup operation."

On Friday evening and Saturday morning, police raided the homes of several Malady Front members, seizing flags and signs intended for the march.

The breakup of the peaceful march comes amid the ongoing thaw in relations between Minsk and the European Union that has begun after the Belarusian authorities pledged to carry out liberalization.