Publish: 07 Sep 2020, 12:59 pm
Huge crowds of Belarusian protesters flooded the capital Minsk on Sunday, urging powerful Alexander Lukashenko to quit power, defying the threat of arrest and massive force deployment.
Over the past three weekends, more than 100,000 people are estimated to have taken to the streets of the capital Minsk and AFP journalists said on Sunday, the crowds in Minsk might have been even larger reports AFP.
Troops, water cannons, armored personnel carriers and armored reconnaissance vehicles were deployed in the city centre, but protesters from all walks of life — from parents with children to students and even priests —rallied a show of defiance.
According to the Viasna Rights Group, around 250 people were arrested nationwide, including 175 in Minsk.
An interior ministry spokesperson refused to confirm the figures.
Many protesters held red-and-white flags and placards while a band beat drums and played other instruments.
"Despite rain and pressure from the authorities, despite repression, many more people turned up in Minsk than last Sunday," top opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova told reporters.
"I am convinced that protests will continue until we win."
Unprecedented protests broke out after Lukashenko, who controlled the ex-Soviet state for 26 years, claimed 80 per cent of the vote on 9 August.
Opposition contender Svetlana Tikhanovskaya claims she won the vote, but Lukashenko's security forces have arrested thousands of demonstrators, many of whom accused the police of beatings and torture. Several people were killed during the crackdown.
Tikhanovskaya left Belarus under pressure from the authorities and took refuge in Lithuania, a member of the EU.
Belarusians have been protesting throughout the country for almost a month, even though the protest movement lacks a clear leader, with many demonstrators imprisoned or driven out of the region.
On Sunday, the demonstrators marched to Lukashenko 's residence at the Independence Palace, where they sang "Tribunal" and "How much are you paying?"
One protester had a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whom Germany said had been poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent.
"Please only live," said the placard, referring to President Vladimir Putin's main political rival. Navalny has been in a coma for the past two weeks after he drank what his aides suspect was a cup of poisoned tea in Siberia.
"Sasha, have some tea. It's Putin's treat," some protesters chanted, referring to Lukashenko by his diminutive name.
Many say they will keep taking to the streets until Lukashenko quits.
"Lukashenko must go," said Nikolai Dyatlov, a 32-year-old protester.
Another protester, 40-year-old Anastasia Bazarevich, said: "Half of the village where my grandma lives comes out and protests every night."
Russia has said that it will respond to any Western attempts to "control the situation" and Putin has raised the prospect of sending military help.
As the protesters eventually dispersed later on Sunday, the photos showed hooded men wearing civilian clothes with batons pursuing and beating the protesters.
- 'Tough nut' –
Putin has been willing to unify Russia and Belarus, and Moscow has followed its latest offer of military support with demands for closer integration.
In the past, Lukashenko ruled out unification and tried to play Moscow off against the West, but his choices are now minimal.
On Thursday, Lukashenko hosted Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and said that the two countries had been able to compromise on issues that they "did not agree on earlier."
The leader of the moustachio said he intended to "do all the I's" with Putin in Moscow in the next few weeks.
Lukashenko made headlines this week when he reported that his security forces had intercepted German calls to prove that Navalny's poisoning had been fabricated.
Belarusian state television broadcasts an "intercept" in which Mike in Warsaw and Nick in Berlin address Navalny's content and brand Lukashenko a "tough nut to crack."
Lukashenko also raised his eyebrows last month when he brandished an assault rifle and made his 16-year-old son Nikolai pose next to him in a bulletproof jacket while also carrying a weapon.