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Police in Belarus arrest hundreds of protesters and dozens of journalists

Belarus' riot police arrested hundreds of demonstrators and dozens of journalists Saturday in a police crackdown that seemed designed to prevent the spread of public discontent over the declining economy and the autocratic government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The arrests, in which those seized were taken to detention centers in armored police vehicles, came after more than a month of protests across the country. Lukashenko had allowed the demonstrations take place, in what many in the country and in the West saw as a sign that the man considered to be Europe's last dictator was softening his grip on his nation of 10 million.

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Those hopes were dashed Saturday as hundreds of riot police and plainclothes KGB officers forcefully blocked demonstrators from gathering in Minsk's main squares for a planned protest sparked by opposition to Lukashenko's new tax on the unemployed.

Local media outlets said about 700 people were detained. Some were later released. The arrests raise to more than 1,000 the number of those detained since the protest movement started Feb. 17.

Opposition parties organized the protests to coincide with the annual commemoration of the 1918 declaration of the Belarusian People's Republic, an independent but short-lived state revered by pro-Western Belarusians.

Saturday was the fiercest crackdown on public dissent since the 2010 postelection demonstrations, when hundreds were beaten and arrested, including many of the country's opposition leaders. That crackdown resulted in Western sanctions against Lukashenko and his government.

Ayres is a special correspondent.

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