Tens of thousands attend Belarus protest against Lukashenko

A participant gestures in front of barriers erected by Belarusian law enforcement officers during an opposition rally to protest against police brutality and to reject the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus on September 6, 2020.
A participant gestures in front of barriers erected by Belarusian law enforcement officers during an opposition rally to protest against police brutality and to reject the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus on September 6, 2020. © REUTERS/TUT.BY

At least tens of thousands and possibly more Belarusian protesters staged a peaceful new march on Sunday, keeping the pressure on strongman Alexander Lukashenko who has refused to quit after his disputed re-election, turning instead to Russia for help to stay in power.

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Troops, water cannon, armoured personnel carriers and armoured reconnaissance vehicles were deployed to the centre of Minsk ahead of the march and several metro stations were closed. The Belarusian authorities detained at least 100 protesters on Sunday across the country, Russia's Interfax news agency reported, citing the Belarus's interior ministry.

But protesters from all walks of life, from parents with children to students and from Catholic priests to prominent athletes, came out onto the streets in a show of defiance, an AFP correspondent reported from the scene.

Many held red-and-white flags and placards while a band beat drums and played other instruments. Some demonstrators danced or walked on stilts.

Unprecedented protests broke out after Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 26 years, claimed re-election with 80 percent of the vote on August 9.

Opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says she won the vote but Lukashenko's security forces have detained thousands of protesters, many of whom accused police of beatings and torture. Several people have died in the crackdown.

Tikhanovskaya left Belarus under pressure from authorities and took shelter in EU member Lithuania.

'Honest elections'           

Belarusians have been demonstrating across the country for nearly a month even though the protest movement lacks a clear leader, with many activists jailed or forced out of the country.

On Sunday, the protesters marched towards Lukashenko's residence at the Independence Palace where they chanted "Tribunal" and "How much are you getting paid?"

Some participants held impromptu picnics near security cordons and water cannon close to the Independence Palace.

"I am in favour of new honest elections," said 28-year-old protester Nikita Sazanovich.

One protester held a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who Germany says has been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent

"Please only live," said the placard, referring to President Vladimir Putin's top foe. Navalny has been in a coma for the past two weeks as his aides suspect he drank a cup of poisoned tea at a Siberian airport.

"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.

"Why is our legitimately elected president located in a different country?" he said, referring to 37-year-old Tikhanovskaya.

More than 100,000 people are estimated to have flooded into the streets of the capital Minsk over the past three weekends and AFP journalists said Sunday the crowd in Minsk was even larger.

"Remember we are strong as long as we are united," Tikhanovskaya told supporters in a short video address ahead of the "March of Unity."

Russia has said it will respond to any Western attempts to "sway the situation" and Putin has raised the possibility of sending military support.         

'Tough nut'

Putin has been keen to unify Russia and Belarus, and Moscow has accompanied its recent offers of economic and military aid with calls for tighter integration.

Lukashenko has in the past ruled out outright unification and sought to play Moscow off against the West but his options now are limited.

On Thursday, Lukashenko hosted Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and said the two countries had managed to agree on issues they "could not agree earlier."

The moustachioed leader said he planned to "dot all the i's" with Putin in Moscow in the next few weeks.

Lukashenko made headlines this week when he claimed that his security forces had intercepted German calls showing that Navalny's poisoning had been faked.

Belarusian state television broadcast the "intercept" in which a Mike in Warsaw and Nick in Berlin discuss Navalny's materials and call Lukashenko a "tough nut to crack."

Lukashenko also raised eyebrows last month when he brandished an assault rifle and had his 16-year-old son Nikolai appear next to him in a bulletproof vest while also wielding a weapon.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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