Minsk (AFP) -
Police in Belarus said Monday that more than 600 people were arrested at weekend protests as authorities intensified efforts to end weeks of demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko.
A senior opposition figure, Maria Kolesnikova, was feared to have been among those detained, with her office saying witnesses described her being snatched off the street in the capital Minsk on Monday morning by unidentified men in black.
Lukashenko is facing an unprecedented challenge to his 26 years in power in the ex-Soviet country, with massive crowds protesting against his disputed re-election on August 9.
An AFP journalist said the crowd of demonstrators waving the opposition's red-and-white flag on Sunday appeared to be as large or larger than on the previous three Sundays, when more than 100,000 people rallied in the streets of Minsk.
But police also appeared to be stepping up a campaign to quash the demonstrations, with troops, water cannon and armoured vehicles deployed in the city centre on Sunday.
As demonstrators gradually dispersed on in the evening, local media reported that hooded men in civilian clothes with batons were chasing and beating demonstrators.
Interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said Monday that 633 people had been detained on Sunday for illegal mass gatherings, one of the largest round-ups of protesters since the early days of the demonstrations.
Security forces cracked down hard on the first demonstrations, with thousands arrested and many of those detained accusing police of beatings and torture, but had eased off after a widespread domestic outcry and international condemnation.
Lukashenko claimed victory in the election with 80 percent of the vote but his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says the election was rigged and has called for a peaceful revolution to end his rule.
- Trio of women campaigners -
Campaign workers for Kolesnikova, one of Tikhanovskaya's main allies, said they feared she had been detained on Monday after witnesses reported that she was grabbed off the street and pushed into a minibus that drove away.
Kolesnikova's office said she was unreachable and her phone was switched off.
Kolesnikova sits on the opposition Coordination Council that is calling for a peaceful transfer of power.
Belarusian authorities have already detained several members of the Coordination Council and questioned others including Kolesnikova in a probe into an alleged attempt to seize power.
Kolesnikova, 38, is the only one of the trio of women who fronted Tikhanovskaya's campaign to remain in Belarus.
Tikhanovskaya has taken shelter in neighbouring Lithuania and her other campaign partner, Veronika Tsepkalo, is now in Ukraine.
Kolesnikova, a trained flautist and music teacher, entered politics to run the campaign of another opposition politician, ex-banker Viktor Babaryko, who attempted to stand for president against Lukashenko but was jailed and barred from running.
When Tikhanovskaya, an English teacher and translator with no political experience, was unexpectedly allowed to run for president, Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo backed her and addressed her rallies.
The women came up with signature gestures: for Tikhanovskaya a raised fist, for Kolesnikova a heart formed with her fingers and for Tsepkalo a victory sign.