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Protesters, police clash in dispute over election

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- Thousands of opposition supporters tried to storm the main government building to protest what the opposition contends was large-scale vote-rigging in Sunday's presidential election.

In clashes with riot police, dozens of protesters were left bruised and bloody after being beaten with clubs.

Protesters broke windows and glass doors but were pushed back by riot police waiting inside the building, which also houses the Central Election Commission.

About 40,000 opposition activists rallied in central Minsk to call for longtime authoritarian leader Alexander G. Lukashenko to step down. It was the largest such rally since 1996.

The demonstrators shouted "Leave!" to Lukashenko, 56, who has led Belarus since 1994.

"Belarusians have shown that they want freedom and cannot tolerate the current regime," opposition leader Yaroslav C. Romanchuk said.

Lukashenko maintains a quasi-Soviet state in the country of 10 million people.


Chavez defends plans for Internet regulation

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez defended plans for a law that would impose broadcast-type regulations on the Internet, saying Sunday that his government should protect citizens against online crimes.

Chavez's congressional allies are considering extending the "Social Responsibility Law" for broadcast media to the Internet, banning messages that "disrespect public authorities," "incite or promote hatred" or crimes, or are aimed at creating "anxiety" in the population.

Government opponents and press freedom groups have been critical of the plan, saying that it is one of several measures being considered that could restrict freedoms.

"We aren't eliminating the Internet here nor censoring the Internet," Chavez said during his weekly television and radio program, "Hello, President." "What we're doing is protecting ourselves against crimes, cybercrimes, through a law."

As examples, Chavez mentioned messages promoting drug use, prostitution and other crimes, and said his government has an obligation to take a stand. Questions remain about enforcement.


Luxury hotel sheepish over $11 million tree

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- An Abu Dhabi luxury hotel that boasted an $11 million Christmas tree decorated with gold and gems acknowledged Sunday that it may have taken the holiday spirit a bit too far.

A statement from the Emirates Palace said that it regretted "attempts to overload" the Christmas tree tradition by adorning it with premium bling, including gold, rubies, diamonds and other precious stones from a hotel jeweler.

The statement was a rare bit of reflection on the Persian Gulf region's ethos of excess. The tree was unveiled last week with full fanfare in a hotel featuring not only its own vending machine that dispenses gold bars, but a one-week $1 million package that includes private jet jaunts in the Middle East.

But the hotel management apparently had second thoughts after questions arose about whether the opulent tree was innocent good cheer or unfortunate bad taste.

The hotel regrets "attempts to overload the tradition followed by most hotels in the country with meanings and connotations that do not fall in line with the [hotel's] professional standards," said a statement carried on the state-run news agency WAM.

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