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US calls on Belarus to hold new election

EU threatens sanctions as protest continues

MINSK, Belarus -- The United States called for a new vote and the European Union threatened sanctions on Belarus, where thousands of opposition supporters gathered in the capital for a second night yesterday to protest President Alexander Lukashenko's reelection.

But the number of demonstrators was smaller than on election night, and prospects for a Ukraine-style ''Orange Revolution" appeared remote as many of the protesters appeared to have little appetite for a prolonged vigil and a possibly violent confrontation with police.

Lukashenko said yesterday that his foes had failed to topple him in a foreign-backed ''revolution."

With overnight temperatures at 28 degrees, protesters set up a dozen small tents and vowed to turn the demonstration into a round-the-clock presence. Most of the tents were draped with historic national flags favored by critics of Lukashenko, who has scrapped them for a Soviet-style version.

''This is our last chance," said Vladimir Fivsky, a 20-year-old student who had wrapped one of the red-striped white flags around his shoulders and wore a pin in the same colors that said : ''For Freedom!" He said he came to the square to protest because he ''had enough" after 12 years of Lukashenko's repressive rule.

''The people want to stay until victory, and I'm with them," said Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition leader who has branded Lukashenko's overwhelming victory in Sunday's elections a farce and called for a new vote.

Officials put on a show of force, with busloads of riot police fanning out into nearby streets and courtyards and preventing people from approaching the main square. Police had only a small and unobtrusive presence at the protest the previous night, when an estimated 10,000 people braved the freezing cold and snow to register their outrage.

The Bush administration called for new elections after independent observers said the election did not meet standards for a free and fair vote.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the election was flawed by a ''climate of fear," and hinted that penalties such as travel restrictions ''are things we will look at."

''We support the call for a new election," McClellan said. ''The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus."

A cheer went up from the crowd in the square when a speaker reported the US statement.

A series of punitive measures will be discussed with the EU, the US State Department said. These could include widespread limits on financial assistance to the Minsk government.

The Bush administration already has peppered hard-line Belarus with restrictions on travel to the United States for individuals suspected of human rights abuses, and barred meetings between high-level US and Belarus officials.

The EU said it was likely to impose sanctions, notably a wider travel ban on top political leaders in Belarus, including Lukashenko.

By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin of Russia congratulated Lukashenko in a telegram and said the results would help strengthen the alliance of the two former Soviet nations. The election result, if it stands, would entrench the status of Belarus as one of the least independent of the former Soviet republics.

Some 5,000 gathered in Oktyabrskaya Square in the capital, about half the number that came out Sunday night for a protest of extraordinary for a tightly controlled country where police have cracked down swiftly on unsanctioned opposition gatherings. The crowd dwindled to a few hundred by midnight.

The diminished crowd suggested to many that the opposition was losing momentum.

''There aren't enough people" a young man hollered into a cellphone amid the din of the rally.

Protesters locked arms in a human chain guarding the tiny encampment. Others tried to bring in blankets, food, and hot drinks, but often were detained by police.

Olena Savina, a 21-year-old journalism student, was bringing supplies when police took her away for an hour and warned her she would have problems at school.

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