MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- The plaintive meows haunt the people of Minsk in the dead of night.
They come, activists say, from hundreds of stray cats who find themselves locked in basements by Belarus authorities -- and doomed to starvation.
City authorities have been sealing off apartment block basements to keep out rats. A tragic consequence is that cats get trapped inside, left to waste away.
"My heart aches to hear how the animals, whom they have walled up, are screaming day and night," said 72-year-old Antonina Gayenko, a retiree who was feeding some cats through small holes in the iron plates used to board up the basements.
"They have doomed them to death from thirst and hunger."
Elena Titova, leader of the animal rights group Protect Life, says the authoritarian ex-Soviet nation has no long-term shelters to house stray animals. She estimated that about 9,000 strays have been killed in the capital alone over the past three years.
"Killing the animals with impunity has become a government policy," Titova said Monday. "This barbarian policy can be described as 'No animal, no problem.' They find it easier to kill them as they don't have to build shelters."
Stray animals in Belarus are placed in shelters for five days and then killed by injection when owners don't show up.
City authorities say they must block off the basements of apartment buildings in line with Soviet-era health rules.
"Cats and residents will scream for a while and then they will calm down," said Alexander Yubkov, a city worker who has welded iron covers on basement windows.
He said that if workers did not secure basements, "sanitary officials will come and order us to pay a fine."
Minsk resident Karolina Litvinova said authorities don't bother to check whether there are no animals left in a basement before shutting it.
Residents have drilled bigger holes in the iron plates to allow the cats to escape.
"We have saved five cats that have been walled up," said Litvinova.