Belarusian security forces beat back dozens of opposition activists from gathering in Minsk's October Square. The protesters then rallied at another site under close police watch, but without interference. Bill Gasperini has more for VOA from Moscow on the rally marking the first anniversary of unprecedented protests in the former Soviet republic.

Squads of paratroopers and police in riot gear punched and beat the activists as they tried to enter Oktyabrskaya Square in downtown Minsk.

The square was the scene of an unprecedented four-day protest a year ago after a controversial election that prolonged the rule of of long-time President Alexander Lukashenko.

After being forced away from the square, the protesters regrouped and held an impromptu rally in another part of the city.

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told the protesters to stand firm, promising that one day Belarus will be free.

Milinkevich was the main opposition candidate in last year's election, which was heavily criticized as unfair in the international community, which later imposed sanctions against Belarus.

The opposition says in recent weeks, as many as 50 opposition activists were arrested to head off a major demonstration to mark the anniversary.

The United States criticized the arrests last week. In a statement, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack expressed "deep concern about ongoing intimidation in advance of a planned peaceful demonstration."

In the past, Mr. Lukashenko has dismissed such criticism and accuses foreign governments of meddling in Belarus' internal affairs. A former state farm boss, the Belarusian leader has ruled the country with an iron hand since 1994 and is often referred to as "Europe's last dictator".

All media are under state control and no open dissent or protests are allowed in the country.

Neighboring Russia is the only major nation that supports Mr. Lukashenko's regime, although there are signs the relationship is fraying.

Mr. Lukashenko lashed out at the Kremlin in January after Russia increased the price that Belarus must pay for natural gas from Russia.