Thousands of demonstrators marched in the Belarusian capital Minsk and elsewhere on Sunday as weekly protests demanding the resignation of veteran President Alexander Lukashenko continued, prompting police to arrest more than 100 people.
Belarus, a country of 9.5 million that Russia sees as a security buffer against NATO, has been rocked by mass demonstrations since an August 9 presidential election that Lukashenko said he won. His opponents claim the vote was rigged and want him to quit.
Most protesters marched in remote residential areas of the capital, clapping hands, shouting “long live Belarus”, and waving white flags with a red stripe in the middle, a symbol of the opposition.
“This [protest] does work as it is impossible to rule the country when the majority does not accept you. With protests we are showing that we are the majority,” said one of the demonstrators Alisa, 21.
Military vehicles and water cannon were seen on the streets of Minsk, while uniformed men, many in helmets, grabbed people in civilian clothes, a witness said and videos posted on social media showed.
The Belarusian Viasna-96 (Spring-96) rights group said at least 100 people had been detained across the country as of Sunday afternoon.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has shrugged off the scale of protests, saying they are sponsored by the West, and shown little signs of willingness to start a dialogue with the opposition.
‘Will not surrender’
The opposition says the election was rigged and political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who ran against Lukashenko in the place of her jailed husband – was the true winner of the vote.
“Each march is a reminder that Belarusians will not surrender. We will not allow our rights to be taken away and turn a blind eye to crimes,” Tikhanovskaya, 38, wrote on her Telegram channel from exile.
Authorities have imposed a heavy crackdown in recent weeks, arresting hundreds of protesters and preventing gatherings in the centre of Minsk.
Riot police block Belarusian pensioners during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk [AP]In response, Lukashenko’s opponents have changed tactics, calling on supporters to gather in small groups in neighbourhoods across the capital rather than staging massive marches through the centre.
Local media reported several dozen meeting points were planned for Sunday across Minsk and in other cities.
In the first days of the demonstrations in August, Belarus police arrested thousands of protesters, with many reporting torture and abuse in custody.
The European Union has slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and a number of his allies over election rigging and the violent crackdown on demonstrators.
Tikhanovskaya fled to EU member Lithuania soon after the August election. She has received support from several Western leaders who refuse to recognise the election results.
Lukashenko, who has the firm backing of Moscow, has refused to step down and instead has suggested reforming the constitution as a way of placating the opposition.