KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – Tens of thousands marched through the streets of the Belarusian capital on Sunday, demanding the removal of the country’s authoritarian leader, who won his sixth term in elections deemed rigged.
More than 50,000 people took part in the rally in Minsk, according to the Viasna human rights center. Protesters carried banners mocking President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 26 years, and chanted “Get out!”
Mass protests rocked Belarus after the August 9th presidential election, which brought Lukashenko victory with 80% of the vote. His main contender, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, received 1
Authorities tried to quell the riots with mass detentions, and police dispersed the crowds with batons, stunning grenades and water cannons. On Monday, the country’s interior ministry threatened to use firearms against protesters, “if necessary”, saying the rallies “have become organized and extremely radical”. However, the protests continued despite the repression.
“This is the first march since authorities threatened to use firearms. But even that did not stop the protest, which took various forms but did not subside, “Viasna leader Ales Bialiatski said.
Tsikhanovskaya, who is currently in exile in Lithuania after leaving the country for fear of her safety, threatened to strike a nationwide strike on Tuesday unless Lukashenko announced her resignation, released political prisoners and halted repression of protesters.
“If our demands are not met by October 25, the whole country will take to the streets,” Tsikhanuskaya said in a statement. “On October 26, a national strike of all companies will begin, all roads will be blocked, sales in state-owned stores will collapse.”
Protesters marched on one of the main roads in Minsk on Sunday, where factories are located, chanting “Strike!” And “Workers are with the people.”
The city center was blocked by water cannons and armored vehicles, and dozens of military trucks were spotted moving through the streets. Several subway stations were closed and mobile internet did not work in the area of the march.
“Lukashenko understands that if it were not for all these artificial obstacles, the whole of Minsk would come out (come together),” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent political analyst in Minsk.
“Despite threats of the use of firearms and intimidation by the KGB (Committee on State Security of Belarus), people are taking to the streets – the protests are not over and this shows that the political crisis in Belarus is in full swing,” Karbalevich said.
In a statement Sunday, Tsikhanovskaya encouraged Belarusians to continue peaceful protests.
“Let us continue to express our demands peacefully and persistently – this is yielding results,” she said, adding that authorities had released Ilya Salei, the lawyer for Tsikhanovskaya’s chief aide, Maria Kolesnikova, from detention.
Kolesnikova was jailed last month on charges of undermining state security, which could lead to five years in prison if convicted. Salei was detained in September on the same charges.
In addition to Minsk, Sunday’s protests took place in several major cities, including Brest, Grodno, Gomel and Vitebsk. Dozens of protesters have been detained across the country: the list of detained protesters released from the Viasna center on Sunday night included more than 150 names.