Tens of thousands of demonstrators massed in central Minsk on Sunday to demand the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the latest in a wave of protests against his disputed re-election.
The authoritarian leader has ordered the military into full combat readiness in the face of the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule of the ex-Soviet state.
He has dispatched his notorious riot police to disperse rallies that erupted after he claimed a sixth term in an election two weeks ago that critics say was rigged.
Crowds of protesters carrying the red-and-white flag of the opposition flooded Independence Square and marched through the capital chanting “freedom” and “we will not forget, we will not forgive” as passing cars honked in support.
“We have just two demands: fair elections and stop the violence,” 32-year-old Igor told AFP.
Officials had warned Belarusians against participating in “illegal demonstrations” and local news outlets published footage showing water cannon and riot police with shields moving towards Independence Square.
The defense ministry said it would intervene to protect “sacred” World War II memorials and several metro stations in Minsk were closed.
Opposition-leaning media said more than 100,000 protesters had convened in the capital for the second Sunday in a row and smaller demonstrations were also reported in provincial cities.
“Lukashenko wants everyone to leave and live like it was. But it won’t be like it used to be,” said Nikita, a 28-year-old protester.
In solidarity, demonstrators in neighbouring Lithuania are forming a human chain from Vilnius to the Belarus border, three decades after residents of the Baltic states joined hands and linked their capital cities in a mass protest against Soviet rule.
No ‘second Ukraine’
The EU has rejected the election results and vowed to sanction Belarusians responsible for ballot fraud and a police crackdown that has seen nearly 7,000 people arrested, with allegations of gruesome torture and abuse in police custody.
Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell warned that Belarus should not be allowed to become a “second Ukraine” and said it was necessary to deal with the 65-year-old Lukashenko, Europe’s longest serving leader.
Outgoing OSCE chairman Edi Rama also offered to mediated a resolution to the crisis, in a letter obtained by AFP to his successor Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.
The man branded “Europe’s last dictator” has brushed aside the calls to go, dismissed the possibility of holding a new vote and instructed his security services to quell unrest and secure the borders.
His judiciary opened a criminal investigation into the opposition’s Coordination Council that is seeking new elections and the peaceful transition of power, after he said opponents wanted to “seize power.”
‘Fatherland in danger’
The former collective farm boss ordered the military into full combat readiness during an army inspection near the border with the EU on Saturday and warned about NATO troop “stirrings” in neighbouring countries.
“The fatherland is now in danger. We cannot joke,” Lukashenko said.
Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda said Lukashenko was trying to “divert attention” from the unrest at home, while NATO dismissed the claims as baseless.
The unlikely leader of Belarus’s opposition, 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled to Vilnius fearing reprisals for mounting the greatest challenge to Lukashenko and claiming election victory.
In an interview with AFP ahead of the demonstrations, she urged protesters to continue to exert pressure on the authorities, saying it was “important to continue to be united in the struggle for the rights.”
The authorities have to understand “we are not a protest movement… we are a majority and we will not step away. We are not afraid of them any more.”
Lukashenko’s opponents have organised strikes and the largest protests in the country’s recent history, with more than 100,000 people turning out in Minsk alone last weekend.
Yet fewer workers at state-run factories – usually a bastion of support for Lukashenko – have continued to strike, with activists citing pressure from the authorities.
The president has threatened from Monday to shut down production lines where workers have put down their tools.
Staff at state-run media outlets have also staged walkouts and Lukashenko admitted this week that journalists from Russia had been flown in to replace them.
Russia, his powerful ally, has warned European leaders against interfering in Belarus and the Kremlin has said it would intervene if necessary.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun will visit Lithuania as part of a trip next week that will also include a stop in Russia for talks on the election fallout.
He is planning to meet with Tikhanovskaya, her representatives told AFP.
Lukashenko’s army inspection Saturday came ahead of large-scale military exercises planned on the border with the European Union between August 28 and 31.