KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Thousands marched on the streets of Belarus’ capital on Sunday, demanding the ouster of the country’s top government official who won a sixth term in the election office, widely seen as rigged .
More than 50,000 people took part in the rally in Minsk, according to the human rights center of Viasna. Demonstrators carried banners mocking President Alexander Lukashenko, who has run the country for 26 years, and shouted “Get out!”
Mass protests have rocked Belarus since the August 9 presidential election, which saw Lukashenko win by 80% of the vote. Her main challenge, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, got 10%. He and his supporters refused to acknowledge the results, claiming the vote result was manipulated.
Authorities tried to quell the riot through public detention and police dispersal of the crowd using truncheons, stun grenades and water canons. On Monday, the country’s Interior Ministry threatened to use firearms against protesters “if necessary,” saying the rally had “become organized and extremely radical.” However, protests continued despite the pressure.
“This is the first march since the authorities threatened to use a gun. But even though it did not stop the protest, which is changing in various forms, but it is not dying,” Viasna leader Ales Bialiatski said.
Tsikhanouskaya, who is currently in exile in Lithuania after leaving the country for fear of his safety, threatened on Tuesday to call a nationwide strike unless Lukashenko announces his resignation, releases political prisoners and stops detention to the protesters.
“If our demands are not met by October 25, the whole country will go to the streets peacefully,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement. “On October 26, a national strike of all businesses will begin, all roads will be blocked, sales to state-owned stores will collapse.”
Protesters on Sunday marched down one of Minsk’s main thoroughfares, where plants and factories are located, and shouted “Strike!” and “Workers are with the people.”
The city center was blocked by water cannons and armored vehicles, and dozens of military trucks were seen driving down the streets. Many subway stations are closed, and mobile internet does not work in the march area.
“Lukashenko understands that if there were not all these artificial barriers, the whole of Minsk would come out (to rally),” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent literary analyst in Minsk.
“Despite threats of gun use and intimidation by the KGB (Belarus’ State Security Committee), people are taking to the streets – the protests are not winding, and it shows that the political crisis in Belarus is coming soon, “Karbalevich said.
In a statement on Sunday, Tsikhanouskaya urged Belarusians to continue the peaceful protest.
“We will continue to express our demands peacefully and consistently – this is yielding results,” he said, adding that the authorities released Ilya Salei, the lawyer of Tsikhanouskaya’s top colleague Maria Kolesnikova, from confinement.
Kolesnikova was jailed last month on charges of weakening state security that could carry five years in prison if she is convicted. Salei was jailed in September as well as related to the same charge.
Aside from Minsk, Sunday protests took place in many major cities, including Brest, Grodno, Gomel and Vitebsk. Many demonstrators have been jailed across the country: the list of protesters released by the Viasna center on Sunday night has more than 150 names on it.