About 7,000 Belarusian protesters rallied Saturday on the eve of the 12th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, demanding compensation for victims and the permanent closure of the plant.

The 1986 explosion at Ukraine's Chernobyl plant, just south of the Belarusian border, ranks as the world's worst nuclear accident. Ukraine and parts of Russia were hard hit by radiation that spewed into the atmosphere. Belarus claims about 2 million of its residents suffered from nuclear contamination.Marching through Minsk, the Belarusian capital, protesters Saturday waved banners bearing the radiation symbol and slogans like "Chernobyl is our common pain."

They called for Russia - as the successor to the Soviet regime that built and operated the plant - to pay compensation to Belarusian victims of Chernobyl and demanded that Ukrainian authorities shut the plant permanently.

Speakers at the rally also used the opportunity to criticize the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a hard-liner who is openly nostalgic for the Soviet era.

Lyavon Barshchevsky, acting leader of the Popular Front opposition group, said Belarus must not only remember the victims of Chernobyl: "We must remember the ones who committed this crime and their spiritual followers who govern Belarus today."

An opposition march through Minsk in 1996 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster turned into an anti-government protest, and dozens of people were injured in clashes with police. This year's rally was peaceful, though at least two protesters were detained, officials said.

None of the four reactors at Chernobyl are operational, but Ukraine's government wants to restart one next month to help meet the country's energy needs - even though it promised to shut the plant permanently by 2000 in exchange for aid from the Group of Seven leading industrial nations.