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In Belarus Authorities raid rights NGO, arrests dozens ahead of rally

Police also detained a leading opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev as he was returning from Poland, taking him off the train at the border and placing him in a detention facility.

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Police officers detain a man as opposition supporters gather for a rally against President Alexander Lukashenko's rule and a controversial new tax on "spongers" - those who work less than six months a year - in Minsk on March 25, 2017 play

Police officers detain a man as opposition supporters gather for a rally against President Alexander Lukashenko's rule and a controversial new tax on "spongers" - those who work less than six months a year - in Minsk on March 25, 2017

(AFP)

Belarus authorities raided the offices of a prominent rights group Saturday, detaining dozens of people ahead of a planned protest, including foreign rights workers, the group said.

Police also detained a leading opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev as he was returning from Poland, taking him off the train at the border and placing him in a detention facility.

Viasna, an NGO that had been tracking arrests and protest rallies in Belarus in recent weeks, said riot police blocked their office in Minsk and was conducting a search.

The police broke down the door, "put people face down on the floor and told them to stay there," the NGO said on its website. "There were 57 people detained, including foreign observers," it said.

Those detained were taken to a police station, it said.

A protest had been scheduled by the opposition for 2:00 pm (1100 GMT) in Minsk and several other cities, the latest in a series of events against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Thousands have attended rallies in recent weeks to oppose a controversial new tax on "spongers" -- those who work less than six months a year -- as the country suffers an economic slump, with the swell in protests alarming the government.

Authorities late Friday told organisers that the event would be illegal. On Saturday, scores of armoured police trucks and water cannons, as well as officers armed with automatic rifles could be seen in the city.

Belarus police detained leading opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev (pictured in 2011) as he was returning from Poland, taking him off the train at the border play

Belarus police detained leading opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev (pictured in 2011) as he was returning from Poland, taking him off the train at the border

(AFP/File)

Heavy police presence

The square where the protest had been set to start was blocked by heavy police presence, with the metro exits sealed. About a hundred people at the scene were being detained en masse shortly after 2:00 pm, according to an AFP correspondent.

Opposition leader Nekliayev, who was set to speak at the protest, was stopped at the border Saturday morning on his way to Minsk, his wife told AFP.

"He is in a detention facility in Brest," Olga Nekliayeva said, referring to the city in southwestern Belarus close to the Polish border.

Dozens have been arrested ahead of Saturday's event, as state television aired reports of alleged weapons caches discovered while police armed with automatic rifles were in the city centre for the first time in decades.

Many had planned to travel to the capital from the provinces for the protest. Belarusian railway monopoly halted online sales for several hours overnight Friday to Saturday, ostensibly due to "technical works."

Belarusian independent newspaper Nasha Niva added that prominent opposition leader Mikola Statkevich and his wife Marina Adamovich had their Facebook accounts hacked, citing Adamovich's son Yuri.

Statkevich's Facebook account was offline Saturday while his official website late Friday posted that "the rally has been cancelled" in what his supporters also believed to be a fake.

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