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Belarus president says he won mandate to remain in power

MINSK, Belarus -- President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus said yesterday that he won a mandate from voters to stay in power in a weekend referendum scrapping presidential term limits, but foreign observers said the vote was marred by violations and thousands of people protested the outcome.

The Central Elections Commission said 77 percent of voters supported the referendum scrapping a two-term limit on presidents. That allows the authoritarian president of this former Soviet republic to run again in 2006.

He has led the nation since 1994.

Parliamentary elections for the largely powerless 110-seat House of Representatives were held alongside the referendum.

''People in Belarus once again said 'yes' to our course," said Lukashenko, whose crackdown on dissent, independent media, and the opposition has put his nation on an isolated, anti-Western path.

The referendum was seen as a critical test for Belarus to either move closer to the West or risk further alienation. The European Union and the United States had warned a ''yes" vote could push the country even further from its European neighbors.

''We regret that Belarus missed an opportunity to take a step closer to the European family, where it belongs," said Tone Tingsgaard, vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In the parliamentary election, the opposition did not win a single seat. But opposition leaders pledged to use widespread allegations of fraud to mobilize discontent in this nation of 10 million and they called for more street protests.

''Lukashenko won by the vote count, but he lost the faith of hundreds of thousands of people," said Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the people of Belarus were kept from freely and fairly expressing their will: ''Electoral misconduct continued throughout the voting and vote tabulation."

Thousands of young Belarusians staged a protest in a square near the presidential administration last night, yelling ''Lukashenko lost!"

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