Protesters demand resignation of Belarus leader

Tens of thousands of people in Belarus flooded into the streets yesterday to demand the resignation of the country’s embattled authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who on the same day marked his 66th birthday.

Security forces were present in large numbers in the capital Minsk, where the main Independence Square had been cordoned off with metal barriers.

But that did not stop the demonstrators from trying to move in, leading to confrontations.

Some officers repeatedly attacked peaceful demonstrators, according to a reporter at the scene.

Other uniformed men tried to push back the people with off-road vehicles that had high metal grilles attached on the front bumper.

Pictures showed women lying down in front of them in the street.

Videos and images from the rally also showed uniformed men leading away mainly male protesters.

There were screams and protesters shouted “Shame!” at the Police.

The Interior Ministry said more than 140 people had been arrested in Minsk alone by the afternoon.

Many other people were reportedly taken into custody at other protests in the country.

Earlier, officials had warned that the Minsk demonstration had not been authorised and threatened violence.

The pro-democracy movement ignored the threats and said that as Lukashenko celebrated his 66th birthday on Sunday, he should see that the people were against him after ruling for 26 years.

Protests erupted in several places in Minsk.

After being thwarted at Independence Square, thousands of protesters then headed across the city to Lukashenko’s working residence, the Independence Palace.

His spokeswoman published a photo showing the head of state defiantly holding a machine gun as he walked in front of the building.

One week ago, he struck a similar pose but armed with a Kalashnikov.

After heavy rains in the late afternoon, most protesters went home.

The final figures on the number of arrests have not been given.

On the last two Sundays, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Belarus to protest “Europe’s last dictator”, as they dub Lukashenko.

In the past few days, other demonstrations were disbanded and people arrested, indicating the power apparatus might not permit a fresh mass demonstration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressly promised Lukashenko support from his country’s security forces in what is seen as a ploy to intimidate the protest movement in the ex-Soviet republic.

A face-to-face meeting between Lukashenko and Putin is planned in Moscow in the coming weeks, the Kremlin announced on Sunday.

An exact time for the meeting was not initially given.

The two politicians had recently spoken on the phone several times amid the ongoing political crisis in Belarus, including on Sunday when Putin congratulated Lukashenko on his birthday.

There were nationwide protests on Saturday, with thousands of women marching through Minsk.

The Interior Ministry said on Sunday 4,000 people participated.

Around 8,500 people took part in other initiatives in 42 places around the country.

Since the controversial presidential election of Aug. 9, in which Lukashenko claimed a landslide of over 80 per cent of the vote but which has been rejected internationally as fraudulent, a division between the supporters and opponents of the president has emerged.

The protests and strikes in state-owned enterprises that emerged afterwards are the largest since Belarus gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In recent days, foreign journalists in Minsk and other Belarusian cities were harassed, temporarily detained by security forces, or had their accreditation withdrawn.

The German Federation of Journalists yesterday called on the government in Berlin to impose penalties on Belarus for its crackdown on journalists, including some from Germany.

Because Germany currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union Council, Berlin has a particular responsibility to respond to the systematic suppression of press freedom and the harassment of journalists, DJV Chairman, Frank Ueberall, said.

“Economic sanctions against Belarus must no longer be taboo,’’ he said.

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