Belarusian police detained more than 200 people on Sunday as tens of thousands protested against the strong man Alexander Lukashenko in violation of police threats to open fire after weeks of demonstrations.
Crowds of protesters waving red and white opposition flags descended on the sandy industrial district of southeastern Minsk for a march along Partizansky Prospekt, a key transport artery and home to a number of factories.
Protesters took to the streets despite threats by police this week to use deadly force from now on, “if necessary”.
Some protesters chanted “Strike!” and “You and your special forces go out!”
Belarusian authorities have deployed military trucks and water cannons, but police have largely refrained from using riot control equipment on Sunday.
Belarusian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told AFP that law enforcement officers fired rubber bullets as a warning to protesters throwing stones at police.
Chemodanova said more than 200 people had been arrested, most of them in Minsk.
The former Soviet nation was engulfed in historic protests after Lukashenko declared victory in the August 9 election over Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a popular opposition candidate.
Protester Angela Krasovskaya said she was not afraid of threats by authorities to use live munitions.
“There is no way back for us,” Krasovskaya told AFP. “If they start firing, then there will be even more people on the streets.”
– “Unprecedented violence” –
Retired Maria Petrovic said the demonstrations would continue until Lukashenko withdrew.
“The level of violence perpetrated by the authorities is unprecedented,” she told AFP.
Telephone networks were severely disrupted, and mobile operator MTS Belarus said it had been ordered to restrict access to “guarantee national security”.
Tikhanovskaya, who took refuge in EU membership Lithuania after the vote, called on Lukashenko to step down before October 25th, warning that he would otherwise face a crippling general strike.
Ahead of Sunday’s protest, the 38-year-old called on Belarusians to move forward with their demands.
“We will stop only when every political prisoner walks free, when members of law enforcement begin to protect the people and the rule of law, and fair elections return to Belarus,” Tikhanovskaya said.
– “Descendants of glorious warriors” –
The Nexta Live channel on the social media platform Telegram, which coordinates the protesters, called on Belarusians to express solidarity with the workers during a protest called the “Partisan March”.
“We, the descendants of glorious warriors and guerrillas, are worthy of our ancestors, who have already defeated fascism once,” the channel said in a statement to its more than two million subscribers.
During World War II, Nazi-occupied Belarus had the largest guerrilla movement in Europe.
The protest movement has continued a series of large-scale demonstrations over the past two months, with 100,000 or more people taking to the streets every Sunday.
Tikhanovskaya, who claims to have won the August election, says Lukashenko must release political prisoners and stop “state terror”.
Several people have died and thousands have been arrested in post-election crackdowns, with torturous accounts of prison abuse emerging. Many said they were tortured, beaten and humiliated in custody.
Before Sunday’s march, Ivan Tertel, head of the KGB’s security service, said provocations were being prepared to “destabilize the situation in our country”.
Many said they supported Tikhanovskaya’s call for a general strike, hoping it could help end the current stalemate.
“We need to push the situation forward,” said student Oleg Demyanenko. “A lot of my friends are ready.”
Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has refused to step down and secured support from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The European Union refused to recognize the results of the contested vote. Last week, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on Lukashenko as the bloc seeks to increase pressure over crackdown on protesters.
A Norwegian MP said on Sunday that he had nominated Tikhanovskaya and her two opposition partners from the coalition for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for organizing peaceful protests.
Geir Toskedal of the Christian Democratic Party told Zemya Vart newspaper that he had nominated Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo “for their fight for fair elections and for inspiring peaceful opposition to the illegal regime in Belarus.”
Kolesnikova is in prison while Tsepkalo, like Tikhanovskaya, has left the country.
tk-as / har