MINSK, Oct 18 — Belarusian police today detained more than 100 people as tens of thousands marched against strongman Alexander Lukashenko indefiance of police threats to open fire after weeks of demonstrations.
Crowds of demonstrators descended on a gritty industrial neighbourhood in southeast Minsk for a march along Partisan Prospect, a key transport artery and home to a number of factories.
Some protesters chanted “Strike!” and “You and your riot police get out!”
The ex-Soviet nation has been gripped by historic protests after Lukashenko claimed victory in August 9 elections over Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a popular opposition candidate.
Belarusian interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told AFP that more than 100 people had been detained in Minsk.
Protesters took to the streets despite threats by police this week to use lethal force from now on “if necessary”.
Protester Anzhela Krasovskaya said she was not afraid.
“There’s no way back for us,” Krasovskaya told AFP. “If they start shooting then there would be even more people in the streets.”
Pensioner Maria Petrovich said demonstrations would continue until Lukashenko quits.
“The level of violence perpetrated by the authorities is unprecedented,” she told AFP.
Tikhanovskaya, who was granted shelter in EU member Lithuania after the vote, has called on Lukashenko to quit power before October 25, warning he would otherwise face a crippling general strike.
Ahead of today’s protest, she urged Belarusians to press ahead with their demands.
“We will stop only when every political prisoner walks free, when members of law enforcement begin to defend the people, and rule of law and honest elections return to Belarus,” she said.
Belarusian authorities deployed military trucks today and phone networks were heavily disrupted.
Local operator MTS Belarus said it had been ordered to limit access to “ensure national security”.
‘Descendants of glorious warriors’
The Nexta Live channel on social-media platform Telegram, which has coordinated protesters, urged Belarusians to express solidarity with workers during the protest, dubbed the “March of Partisans”.
“We, descendants of glorious warriors and partisans, are worthy of our forefathers who already defeated fascism once,” the channel said in a message to its more than two million subscribers.
During World War II, Nazi-occupied Belarus had Europe’s largest partisan movement.
The protest movement has kept up a series of large-scale demonstrations for the past two months, with 100,000 people or more taking to the streets every Sunday.
Tikhanovskaya, who maintains she won the August polls, says Lukashenko must release political prisoners and halt “state terror”.
Several people have died and thousands have been arrested in a post-election crackdown, with harrowing accounts emerging of abuse in jails. Many said they had been tortured, beaten and humiliated in detention.
Police have acknowledged using water cannon and stun grenades against demonstrators but the use of live ammunition would mark a major escalation in the two-month standoff.
Ahead of today’s march Ivan Tertel, head of the KGB security service, said provocations were being prepared to “destabilise the situation in our country”.
He did not say who was behind the alleged plot but said the organisers and their “foreign-based supervisors” planned to criticise law enforcement for tackling the provocations.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has refused to step down and has secured backing from Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The European Union has refused to recognise the results of the disputed vote. Last week EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on Lukashenko as the bloc seeks to step up pressure over the crackdown on protesters.
A Norwegian MP said Sunday he had nominated Tikhanovskaya and two other top members of the Belarus opposition for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for organising the peaceful protests.
Geir Toskedal, of the Christian Democratic Party, told the Vart Land daily he had nominated Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo “for their struggle for fair elections and for inspiring peaceful opposition against the illegitimate regime in Belarus”. — AFP