Belarusian police on Sunday detained more than 200 people as tens of thousands marched on strongman Alexander Lukashenko despite police threats to open fire after weeks of demonstrations.
Crowds of protesters waving red-and-white opposition flags sank in a brutal industrial district in southeastern Minsk for a march along the Partisan Prospect, a major transportation artery and home to a number of factories.
Protesters took to the streets despite threats from police this week to use deadly force from now on “if necessary”.
Some protesters shouted “Strike!” and “You and your rebel police are coming out!”
Belarusian authorities deployed military trucks and water cannons, but police largely refrained from using riot control equipment on Sunday.
Belarusian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told AFP members of law enforcement fired rubber bullets as a warning to protesters throwing stones at police.
Chemodanova said more than 200 people were arrested, most in Minsk.
The ex-Soviet nation has been gripped by historic protests after Lukashenko claimed victory in the August 9 election over Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a popular opposition candidate.
Protests Anzhela Krasovskaya said she was not afraid of the authorities’ threats to use live ammunition.
“There is no way back for us,” Krasovskaya told AFP. “If they started shooting, there would be even more people on the street.”
– ‘Unique violence’ –
Pensioner Maria Petrovich said the demonstrations would continue until Lukashenko stops.
“The level of violence perpetrated by the authorities is unprecedented,” she told AFP.
The telephone network was severely disrupted, and mobile operator MTS Belarus said it had been ordered to restrict access to “ensure national security”.
Tikhanovskaya, who was abolished in EU member Lithuania after the vote, has called on Lukashenko to step down before October 25, warning that he would otherwise be subjected to a crippling general strike.
Ahead of Sunday’s protest, the 38-year-old Belarusian urged to move forward with their demands.
“We will only stop when any political prisoner goes free, when members of law enforcement start defending the people and the rule of law and honest elections return to Belarus,” Tikhanovskaya said.
– ‘Descendants of Glorious Warriors’ –
The Nexta Live channel on the social media platform Telegram, which has coordinated protesters, called on Belarusians to express solidarity with workers during the protest, called the “partisan march”.
“We, descendants of glorious warriors and partisans, are worthy of our ancestors who once defeated fascism,” 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 held a number of large demonstrations in the last two months, with 100,000 people or more taking to the streets every Sunday.
Tikhanovskaya, who maintains she won the votes in August, says Lukashenko must release political prisoners and stop “state terror”.
Several people have died and thousands have been arrested in a violent breakdown after the election with upsetting accounts that arise as abuses in prisons. Many said they had been tortured, beaten and humiliated in detention.
Ahead of Sunday’s march, Ivan Tertel, head of the KGB security service, said provocations were ready to “destabilize the situation in our country”.
Many said they supported Tikhanovskaya’s call for a general strike and expressed hope that it could help end the current dead end.
“We have to push the situation forward,” said student Oleg Demyanenko. “Many of my friends are ready.”
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 recognize the results of the controversial vote. Last week, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on Lukashenko as the bloc seeks to increase pressure on the crackdown on protesters.
A Norwegian MP said on Sunday that he had nominated Tikhanovskaya and her two opposition coalition partners for the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 to organize the peaceful protests.
Geir Toskedal of the Christian Democratic Party told Vart Land daily that he had nominated Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo “for their fight for fair elections and for inspiring peaceful opposition to the illegitimate regime in Belarus”.
Kolesnikova is in prison, while Tsepkalo, like Tikhanovskaya, has left the country.
tk-as / har