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‘Belarus cuts social media access amid protests’

Plainclothes Belarussian policemen detain a protester in central Minsk yesterday during another round of “silent” protests against the hardline authorities. Photo: Alexey Gromov/AFP

Plainclothes Belarussian policemen detain a protester in central Minsk yesterday during another round of “silent” protests against the hardline authorities. Photo: Alexey Gromov/AFP

Belarus cut access to social media sites yesterday, a rights group said, as undercover policemen made dozens of arrests during another round of “silent” protests against the hardline authorities.

Human rights groups and witnesses said police detained dozens of people in the capital Minsk and other major cities during a weekly protest organised through the Internet by a group called “Revolution through the Social Network”.

The protests have varied slightly since spontaneously starting in early June after the government was forced to devalue the local ruble by 36 per cent amid a spiralling economic crisis.

Initial protests saw people gather on major squares and applaud at an agreed hour.

Arrests of demonstrators forced organisers to suggest that people simply clap their hands while walking down the street. The group has since been joined by motorists who display anger at President Alexander Lukashenko by playing a popular Soviet-era song call “We Are Waiting for Change” while slowly driving through Belarussian city centres.

Mr Lukashenko has expressed repeated outrage at such signs of discontent and vowed to crack down on various “noise makers”.

An AFP correspondent in Minsk and rights organisation Vyasna said access inside Belarus to social networks such as Twitter and popular local sites Vkontakte and Odnoklasnik disappeared shortly before the rallies began.

“Revolution through the Social Network” called on people yesterday to show up at an agreed location at 7 p.m. with their mobile phone alarms set to go off at that exact hour.

Witnesses and rights groups said undercover police filled central squares across the republic’s main cities hours before the event was due to begin and began making arrests in advance. The Vyasna rights group said 15 people were detained in Minsk and 30 others in the city of Mozyr. The latter group was later released.

Ten more people were arrested in the town of Slutsk near the capital while sporadic detentions were also reported at other locations.

Vyasna said several local reporters were also taken in for questioning.

The US State Department last week condemned the “increasingly heavy-handed tactics employed by Belarussian authorities against demonstrators and journalists during the weekly peaceful protests which began in early June.”

Mr Lukashenko’s tactics have also been criticised by Russia – a nation on which he relies on for assistance during the crisis – and European nations, Poland in particular.

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