"By doing this, they are showing to the world that Belarus is a dictatorship with no freedom of speech nor freedom to gather."

'Freedom Day'

The rally was staged to mark the anniversary of the brief period of independence declared in Belarus in 1918. March 25 - referred to as Freedom Day by the opposition - has long been a day of protest.

Demonstrators waved the country's red and white striped pre-Soviet era flag and the blue and gold-starred banner of the European Union.

"By doing this, they are showing to the world that Belarus is a dictatorship with no freedom of speech nor freedom to gather"

Anatoly Lebedko, opposition leader
Some shouted "fascists" and "shame" at the police.

Later, hundreds of people broke off from the main protest and tried to march down a central street to the presidential administration building.

The road was blocked by police trucks and officers in riot gear, who also carried protesters away into waiting police trucks.

The interior ministry said about 80 people were detained, according to the Interfax news agency.

But an official from the Belarusian Helsinki Group, a human rights body, told the AFP news agency that the number was more like 100 activists.

Opposition groups reported that security agents arrested activists across the country before Tuesday's demonstrations and closed bus and underground stations near the scene of the demonstration.

A spokesman for the Belarusian People's Front said that Ales Kalita, the leader of its youth wing, was one of several activists detained ahead of the demonstration.

Vladimir Naumov, the Belarus interior minister, said before the event: "Of course today more forces and equipment will be deployed. Any unsanctioned march will be prevented in accordance with the necessary laws."

Diplomatic standoff

The government of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus president, has been criticised by other countries for imprisoning opposition leaders, preventing criticism in the state-controlled media and imposing severe restrictions on rallies.

Opposition activists were forced onto
a number of police buses [Reuters]
The United States has dubbed the country "Europe's last dictatorship" and recently imposed economic sanctions in protest at the  Belarus's human rights record.

The move sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries leading to the US cutting its embassy staff on Monday. Earlier this month Minsk recalled its ambassador in Washington.

The Belarus state security agency on Tuesday said it confirmed a television report claiming that a US spy ring had been discovered in the capital.
  
According to the report, broadcast on Sunday, 10 Belarussian nationals were discovered giving information to a staff member of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The US acting head of mission in Minsk told the BelaPan news agency that the 10 people were security staff protecting the embassy building and that the local police were fully aware of their activities.