MINSK - What started with a cluster of indignant pensioners turned into a surging crowd of thousands of protestors who faced off with riot police in the Belarussian capital Saturday before gathering in a nearby park.

The protestors had come with makeshift placards and flags to show their anger at an election last Sunday that gave a third term to President Alexander Lukashenko.

They were staging their demonstration on what is an unofficial holiday for the opposition known as Freedom Day, which celebrates Belarus' first brief period of independence from Russia in 1918.

"This is a disgrace for Belarus," said 74-year-old Ernst Sabila, a pastor with the Belarussian Evangelical Church, gesturing at the special forces officers who refused to allow entry to a square where protestors had camped earlier in the week.

"We gathered to celebrate our independence and the enemies of the people closed the square," said the pastor, whose church has long been at odds with Belarus' Orthodox authorities.

As the protest grew, it attracted people of all ages.

They became wedged along the sidewalks of Minsk's Independence Avenue by thousands of riot police and black-clad special forces officers who tried to push them away, as car-horns honked in support of the demonstrators.

"Keep off the road! Our first concern is for your safety!" blared the loudspeaker of a police car before authorities briefly closed the avenue to traffic.

One woman scrawled her protest on the side of a cardboard shopping bag: "No King Lukashenko!" it read, referring to a 2004 constitutional change that abolished a two-term limit to tenure of the office of president.

Wedged up against a McDonalds restaurant, protestors interspersed cries of "Long Live Belarus!" with jeers for the special forces.

"Go! Go! Faster! Faster!" spat out one demonstrator, Yevgeny, at a column of riot police running past. "That's what they call protecting the people!"

Others were less eager to be present: "I'm just trying to get home," said a mother carrying a baby, hemmed in by riot police on what is the main shopping street.

Thousands then snaked in a long line through side streets to the wooded Yanka Kupala park, named after a celebrated Belarussian author.

Some 7,000 gathered in the snow among the trees in cheerful mood, playing with balloons and listening to Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition contender at last Sunday's election.

Some climbed trees for a better view, as Milinkevich likened the task of ousting Lukashenko to storming a fortress.

"This assault will not go on for five years. It will happen soon," he said, referring to the five-year term for which the Belarussian leader is elected and prompting a huge cheer.

With security forces keeping their distance, the crowd showed anger only at mentions of Lukashenko and state television, which has portrayed opposition activists as drug addicts and sexual deviants.

"Disgrace! Disgrace!" they shouted when a state television crew arrived, some protestors throwing snowballs at the crew.

Other Minsk residents said they had no intention of being caught up in the excitement, among them Gennady, a taxi driver who praised the order he said Lukashenko had brought to the country following the Soviet Union's collapse.

"This is Europe interfering in our affairs," he said, gesturing angrily at the protestors on the main street.

"It's all part of a common American policy. The people voted for Lukashenko of their own free will," he said, dismissing Western and opposition accusations that Sunday's vote was rigged.

03/25/2006 14:43 GMT

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