Cuban police haul protesting "Ladies in White" away

HAVANA Wed Mar 17, 2010 3:06pm EDT

1 of 3. Security forces drag members of the Ladies in White, a group made up of family members of imprisoned dissidents, into a bus after a march in Havana March 17, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Desmond Boylan

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban police grabbed members of the opposition group "Ladies in White" by their hair, dragged them into a bus and drove them away to break up a protest march on Wednesday.

The white clothes the women traditionally wear were smeared with mud as they resisted policewomen forcing them into a bus. Government protesters shouted insults at them for the second day in a row.

The march was the third this week by the Ladies in White who are protesting the 2003 imprisonment of their husbands and sons, most of whom are still in jail.

The seventh anniversary of the crackdown, known as the "Black Spring," is Thursday, when the women said they will march again.

On Wednesday, they attended a mass in the working class neighborhood of Parraga and began walking toward the nearby home of dissident Orlando Fundora, who began a hunger strike last week.

As the 30 or so women walked along carrying flowers, about 200 government supporters marched alongside, separated by security agents.

"Worms, get out of here. Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!" the government supporters shouted, referring to former president Fidel Castro and his brother, current President Raul Castro, the only leaders Cuba has since the 1959 communist revolution.

For their part, the women shouted "Freedom" and "Zapata lives." Orlando Zapata Tamayo, an imprisoned dissident died from an 85-day hunger strike on February 23 and has become a rallying point for Cuba's opposition. His mother, Reyna Tamayo, took part in the march.

'NO FEAR'

As the pro-government crowd swelled, state security agents repeatedly offered to take the Ladies in White away in a bus, but leader Laura Pollan refused.

Finally, they pulled a bus up and began hauling the women into it, grabbing some by the hair and others by the arms and legs as they screamed in protest. They were driven to Pollan's house in Central Havana.

"They are invading Cuban territory. This street belongs to Fidel," housewife Odalys Puente said of the women.

Ladies in White member Berta Soler said: "When a wild animal is penned up, it does this and much more. We are ready for everything. We have no fear."

Cuba has been condemned internationally for Zapata's death and its treatment of another hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, who has been in a hospital receiving fluids intravenously since he collapsed on Thursday.

Fundora, a former political prisoner, was also said to be in hospital after beginning his hunger strike a week ago.

Cuban dissidents, who are small in number and not well known domestically, say the hunger strikes have refocused international attention on their cause.

The United States and Europe have condemned communist-led Cuba over the hunger strikes and called for the release of its estimated 200 political prisoners.

Cuban leaders say dissidents are mercenaries working for the United States and other enemies to subvert the government.

They have vowed to resist international pressure to change their treatment of opponents.

(Editing by Jeff Franks and Alan Elsner)

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