Tens of thousands protest in Minsk to demand Alexander Lukashenko's resignation

Defiant protesters have flooded the Belarussian capital, calling for the president's removal.

People shout slogans, as they attend a protest in Belarus (AAP)

People shout slogans, as they attend a protest in Belarus earlier in the year. Source: AAP

Tens of thousands of demonstrators have massed in central Minsk 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," Mr 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.

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

But with rain last night, 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 said.

People attend a protest against the results of the presidential elections in Minsk (AAP)
People attend a protest against the results of the presidential elections in Minsk (AAP) Source: EPA


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.

A helicopter carries Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to his residence, the Independence Palace, where an opposition rally is held (AAP)
A helicopter carries Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to his residence, the Independence Palace, where an opposition rally is held (AAP) Source: Natalia Fedosenko/TASS/Sipa USA


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 Mr 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 Mr Lukashenko holding an automatic rifle and wearing body armour when the touring helicopter brought him back to his official residence.

A woman gestures in front of a riot police blockade (AAP)
A woman gestures in front of a riot police blockade (AAP) Source: AP


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.

Mr 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," Mr Lukashenko said.

Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda said Mr 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 Mr 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."

Mr 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 Mr Lukashenko - have continued to strike. 

Activists have cited pressure from the authorities, and Mr 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 Mr 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.

Mr Lukashenko's army inspection Saturday came ahead of large-scale military exercises planned on the border with the European Union between 28 and 31 August.



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5 min read
Published 24 August 2020 at 6:50am
Source: AFP, SBS

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