Belarus police release detained protesters
MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus police have released most of the 200 or so protesters they detained on Wednesday night at a rally against President Alexander Lukashenko in the capital Minsk, human rights activists said on Thursday.
Riot police rounded up scores of people among about 1,000 who turned out for the rally in response to opposition calls on the Internet.
The rights organization Vesna-96 said more than 220 people were detained in the capital and many others in other towns and cities in the former Soviet republic, during protests partly provoked by economic hardship.
"But at least in Minsk, all of them, or almost all of those detained, were released later on Wednesday night," Vesna representative Valentin Stefanovich told Reuters.
Later on Thursday Vesna said in a statement that courts in Minsk had fined 20 protesters between $140 and $200 on charges of hooliganism.
Rallies against Lukashenko's rule are rare in the tightly policed country, but protest calls on social networking sites have multiplied as a severe currency crisis has brought hardship.
Police sealed off entry to the city's October Square near the main presidential headquarters on Wednesday night, as they did a week ago.
Up to 1,000 gathered peacefully on the main thoroughfare leading to the square and in adjoining streets, simply applauding in a coordinated act of protest, said witnesses.
Squads of black-clad special forces moved in and hustled people into police buses, the witnesses added.
Belarus has been struggling for months to pull out of a currency crisis -- largely fueled by Lukashenko's populist economic policies -- which has led to a 36 percent devaluation against the dollar.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, said on Friday the country would soon pull out of crisis though he offered no new concrete policies.
Minsk is receiving several million dollars of credit from a Russian-led bailout, but is also seeking up to $8 billion of aid from the International Monetary Fund.
Russia is Belarus's biggest trading partner, providing it with oil and gas and a huge market for its exports.
Delivery of IMF aid is complicated by Lukashenko's poor image in the West since a police crackdown on an opposition rally against his re-election for a fourth term in power last December.
The United States and the European Union have imposed a travel ban on him and his inner circle and the EU last Monday extended economic sanctions against Belarus and expanded its blacklist of top Belarussian officials.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Richard Balmforth and Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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