Mass Belarus protests to demand Lukashenko's resignation
This grab taken from a video released by Belarus state agency "Belta" shows President Alexander Lukashenko holding an automatic rifle and wearing body armour as he arrives, on August 23, 2020, at his residence in Minsk, not far from where opposition protests are taking place. Tens of thousands of demonstrators massed in central Minsk on Sunday to demand the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who flew over the scene of the banned protest in a helicopter and called the marchers "rats".
Mass Belarus protests to demand Lukashenko's resignation
Tatiana Kalinovskaya (Agence France-Presse) - August 24, 2020 - 7:45am

MINSK, Belarus — Tens of thousands of demonstrators massed in central Minsk on Sunday to demand the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who flew over the scene of the banned protest in a helicopter and called the marchers "rats".

The authoritarian leader, shown later clutching an automatic rifle upon landing at his central Minsk residence, 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.

"They fled like rats," Lukashenko said in a presidential video taken during the evening helicopter flight with his 15-year-old son Nikolai after the protest had largely broken up.

He has previously dispatched his notorious riot police to disperse rallies that erupted after he claimed a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote in an election two weeks ago that the opposition says was rigged.

But with rain on Sunday evening, the protesters appeared to break up voluntarily without any clashes with the riot police, the latest of many peaceful showdowns.

Crowds of protesters carrying the red-and-white flag of the opposition earlier 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 defence ministry said it would intervene to protect "sacred" World War II memorials and several metro stations in Minsk were closed.

Human chain

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.

In solidarity, demonstrators in neighbouring Lithuania were 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 to protest Soviet rule.

The European Union 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 mediate 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.

A video released by the presidency showed Lukashenko holding an automatic rifle and wearing body armour when the touring helicopter brought him back to his official residence.

AFP photographs showed a number of demonstrators gathered in the evening opposite law enforcement officers guarding his residence known as Independence Palace, but correspondents said they massed there only briefly.

Lukashenko's 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 Saturday's demonstrations, she urged protesters to continue to exert pressure, 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, but fewer workers at state-run factories -- usually a bastion of support for Lukashenko -- have continued to strike. 

Activists have cited pressure from the authorities, and Lukashenko 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.

US 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.

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. —  with Maria Panina in Moscow

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: October 2, 2020 - 7:53am

Anti-government protests seeking to oust him followed a crushing re-election victory for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in disputed polls. — AFP

October 2, 2020 - 7:53am

EU chief Charles Michel confirms Friday that Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is himself not among the figures targeted on a new sanctions list.

"No Lukashenko is not on the current list, but of course we will follow the situation, we will follow developments," the president of the European Council says after meeting EU leaders. — AFP

October 1, 2020 - 7:50am

Russian President Vladimir Putin told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron Wednesday that any attempts to interfere in affairs of a sovereign country were "unacceptable" as the two discussed Belarus, the Kremlin said.

Putin noted Russia's "principled position" that "any attempts to interfere in internal affairs of a sovereign state and outside pressure on legitimate authorities are unacceptable," the Kremlin said late Wednesday.

The phone call between the two leaders came after Macron met Belarusian opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius on Tuesday. — AFP

September 24, 2020 - 7:33am

Belarus police on Wednesday arrested more than 140 people across the country as demonstrators took to the streets to protest strongman Alexander Lukashenko's secretive presidential inauguration, a rights group said.

The Viasna rights group released the names of more than 140 people it said were arrested in the capital Minsk, the southwestern city of Brest and elsewhere. Police used water cannon and tear gas in Minsk to break up the rallies.

On Wednesday evening, protests broke out in Minsk and a number of other cities as several thousand demonstrators took to the streets to protest Lukashenko's secretive presidential inauguration earlier in the day. — AFP

September 21, 2020 - 7:58am

More than 100 people were on Sunday arrested in Belarus on the sidelines of opposition demonstrations against the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, according to rights group Viasna.

At least 80 were arrested in the capital Minsk, where tens of thousands held a peaceful march, according to Viasna, which added that at least 47 people were arrested elsewhere in the country, notably in Gomel, Brest and Grodno. —  AFP

September 9, 2020 - 7:43am

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday denounced a bid by protest-hit Belarus to expel opposition leaders and said the United States was considering further sanctions.

Pompeo said the US was "deeply concerned" by the action Monday against Maria Kolesnikova, one of the most prominent opposition figures still in the country, and commended her "courage."

"The United States, in coordination with our partners and allies, is considering additional targeted sanctions to promote accountability for those involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus," he said in a statement — AFP

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