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Cuban security agents break up protest march

A member of the Ladies in White, a group of female dissidents, is grabbed by a security agent during a protest in Havana, Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Uniformed Cuban security agents prevented Ladies in White from marching on the outskirts of the capital to demand release of their jailed husbands and sons, physically removing them when they lay down in the street in protest. A member of the Ladies in White, a group of female dissidents, is grabbed by a security agent during a protest in Havana, Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Uniformed Cuban security agents prevented Ladies in White from marching on the outskirts of the capital to demand release of their jailed husbands and sons, physically removing them when they lay down in the street in protest. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
By Andrea Rodriguez
Associated Press Writer / March 17, 2010

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HAVANA—Uniformed Cuban security agents prevented the mothers and wives of dissidents from marching on the outskirts of the capital on Wednesday to demand release of their loved ones, shoving them into a bus when they lay down in the street in protest.

It was the second day in a row that a peaceful opposition march by the Damas de Blanca -- or "Ladies in White" -- degenerated into a shouting match, raising tension a day ahead of the anniversary of a major crackdown on dissent.

The group is made up of female relatives of some of the 75 dissidents arrested in a sweeping government operation on or around March 18, 2003. Some 53 of the dissidents remain jailed, many of them sentenced to decades in jail.

As about 30 Ladies in White left a church in the Parraga neighborhood, hundreds of pro-government supporters crowded around them, shouting "Long Live Fidel!" and "Get out, worms!"

The women shouted back "Freedom!" and said they wanted to call the world's attention to the plight of their husbands.

Such "acts of repudiation" have become something of a ritual in Cuba. The government claims they arise spontaneously as a result of disgust with the dissidents. Others believe that the government organizes them and that many of those taking part are members of state security.

As the women marched down the street clutching pink gladiolas, the crowd followed them. At nearly every corner, Cuban police and Interior Ministry agents asked the women to voluntarily end their march and take shelter in a government bus, but the women refused.

The women were hoping to march to the home of Orlando Fundora, a dissident who lives in the neighborhood, but a group of female security agents in olive green Interior Ministry uniforms and blue police uniforms formed a cordon at the end of the block, preventing the march from continuing.

When the protesters lay down in the street in protest, the security agents picked them up and put them in a government bus by force. The women were dropped off a short time later at the home of Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan.

The pro-government response to the marches has grown more forceful each day in the lead-up to the anniversary. A march by the Ladies in White on Monday came off peacefully. On Tuesday, government supporters shouted them down as they marched in Havana.

Wednesday's march was the first time state agents physically intervened. The Ladies in White say they plan to march again on Thursday's anniversary.

Cuba's human rights situation has been a cause of renewed international tension since the Feb. 23 death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a long hunger strike in jail. Another man, Guillermo Farinas, has refused to eat or drink since shortly after Zapata Tamayo's death, though he is allowing himself to be fed intravenously periodically at a local hospital.

The European Parliament last week voted overwhelmingly to condemn Cuba for Zapata Tamayo's death, and a group of artists and intellectuals including Pedro Almodovar have begun to circulate a petition criticizing the Cuban government's actions.

On Tuesday, the human rights group Amnesty International called for the release of all political prisoners.

Cuba has lashed out at the criticism, saying it will not accept pressure or give in to blackmail. The government describes the dissidents as common criminals who are paid by the United States to destabilize the government, and says every country should have the right to jail traitors.

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Editor's Note: Associated Press writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.