Belarus Crisis: President Lukashenko Deploys Troops as Opposition Holds Mass Rally in Minsk
A mass rally of the Belarusian opposition have been held in the capital Minsk, two weeks after a disputed election gave President Alexander Lukashenko another term in office.
Correspondents in the Belarusian capital said tens of thousands filled the central square despite a heavy police presence.
The protesters say President Lukashenko stole the election and want him to resign.
Alexander Lukashenko, 65, has vowed to crush unrest and blamed the dissent on unnamed “foreign-backed revolutionaries”.
Recent protests were met with a crackdown in which at least four people were killed. Demonstrators said they had been tortured in prisons.
According to official results, Alexander Lukashenko – who has ruled Belarus for 26 years – won more than 80% of the vote in the 9 August election and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya 10%.
There were no independent observers and the opposition alleges massive vote rigging.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to flee to neighboring Lithuania the day after the election, vowed to “stand till the end” in the protests.
According to pro-opposition media, 100,000 people poured into Independence Square on August 23. State TV put the crowd at 20,000.
After gathering in the square, some demonstrators moved towards the “Hero City” war memorial and the presidential palace. They were blocked by a security cordon before dispersing.
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State TV released a video showing President Lukashenko arriving at the presidential palace by helicopter, wearing a flak jacket and carrying an automatic weapon.
Similar demonstrations were held in other Belarusian cities. Meanwhile in Lithuania, thousands of people – including President Gitanas Nausėda – formed a human chain from the capital Vilnius to the Belarusian border in solidarity with those protesting in Minsk.
More human chains were planned in the Estonian capital Tallinn and in Prague in the Czech Republic.
This weekend’s rally in Minsk follows the country’s biggest protest in modern history on August 16, when hundreds of thousands filled the streets. Strike action in key factories across Belarus is also keeping up the pressure on the president.
President Lukashenko insists he won the election fairly and has ruled holding another poll. On August 22 he accused NATO of “trying to topple the authorities” and install a new president in Minsk.
He said he was moving troops to Belarus’s western borders to counter a NATO build-up in Poland and Lithuania, and vowed to “defend the territorial integrity of our country”.
NATO responded by saying it posed “no threat to Belarus or any other country”, and had “no military build-up in the region”.
Alexander Lukashenko has also accused an opposition council – set up by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to organize peaceful transition – of trying to seize power. Two of its members were questioned by police on August 21.