Belarus: dozens of arrests during the big opposition demonstration

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Belarusian police arrested dozens of people on Sunday during a large opposition protest in Minsk, trying to disperse the rally which rejects the controversial re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, 66, including 26 at the head of Belarus, has faced daily protests since the disputed presidential election of August 9, which he claims to have won with 80% of the vote, while his detractors denounce fraud.

On August 16 and 23, the opposition had succeeded in the feat of bringing down nearly 100,000 people to the streets of Minsk despite pressure and threats from the authorities, the two biggest demonstrations in the country’s history.

As multiple groups ranging from several hundred to several thousand protesters converged on central Minsk on Sunday, riot police tried to stop them, making dozens of arrests.

Present in large numbers and with vehicles and giant gates, it crisscrossed Independence Square and other places in central Minsk, alongside masked and armed soldiers, without distinctive signs, according to an AFP journalist.

The demonstrators carried the red and white flag of the opposition and chanted “Leave!” and “Long live Belarus!”.

On Saturday, Belarusian authorities withdrew their credentials without explanation from several journalists working for foreign media, including AFP, AP, BBC and Radio Liberty. This decision was denounced by these editorial staff, by Germany and the United States.

The leading figure of the opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, refugee in Lithuania, said to see it “a new sign that the regime is in moral bankruptcy and tries to cling to power only by fear and intimidation”.

Since the start of the protest movement, Belarusian and foreign journalists have been the subject of pressure and brief arrests, access to independent and opposition media has been blocked by the authorities and the internet network has suffered intermittent cuts.

Russian support

The results of the presidential election were rejected by the European Union, which is preparing sanctions against senior Belarusian government officials and which urged Alexander Lukashenko to dialogue with the opposition.

Mr. Lukashenko for his part refused to make any concession and denounces a Western plot intended to bring him down. On Friday, he again accused the West of wanting to overthrow him in order to weaken Russia.

He has so far enjoyed the cautious support of his closest ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has said he is ready to intervene at his neighbor’s house if the protests degenerate, while calling on the authorities and the opposition to negotiate.

The two spoke on the phone on Sunday, with Mr Putin congratulating Mr Lukashenko on his 66e anniversary and promising “the strengthening of the Russian-Belarusian alliance and the development of cooperation in all fields”, according to a statement from the Kremlin.

The Europeans had urged Mr. Putin to put pressure on his Belarusian counterpart to enter into a dialogue with the “coordination council” formed by the opposition to promote a peaceful transition at the head of the country.

Mr. Lukashenko refused to do so, denouncing an attempt to “seize power”. The opposition “council” is facing prosecution for “undermining national security,” and two of its members have received short prison terms in other cases.

Several other members were summoned by investigators, including Nobel laureate for literature Svetlana Aleksievich.

In Minsk and other cities in the country, daily rallies have been held since August 9, despite Alexander Lukashenko’s martial declarations and repression.

On Saturday again, a thousand women marched in the capital to demand new elections and prosecution of law enforcement officials, accused of violence and torture.

“I’m afraid, but I came for freedom and for the rule of law,” one of the demonstrators, Elena, 32, told AFP.

More than 300 Belarusian top athletes also publicly called on Sunday for new elections.

The first protests in Belarus after the August 9 election were suppressed by force, leaving three dead and dozens injured. More than 7,000 people had been arrested.

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