Belarus: tens of thousands of demonstrators, more than 200 arrests

This protest action is the first of any scale since the ultimatum set for Alexander Lukashenko by the leading figure of the opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa.

Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets in Belarus on Sunday against President Alexander Lukashenko, despite the threat of live ammunition from the police, who arrested more than 200 people.

This protest action is the first of any scale since the ultimatum set for Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, by the leading figure of the opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, a refugee in Lithuania. She gave the president until October 25 to step down, otherwise she will call on the country to take to the streets and a general strike.

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Unlike previous rallies, the demonstrators chose this Sunday not to parade in the center of Minsk but on an artery south of the capital, where many factories are located. They chanted “Strike!” and anti-Lukashenko and anti-police slogans.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Tchemodanova said more than 200 demonstrators were arrested, almost all in Minsk, and police used rubber bullets against protesters who threw stones at them.

The police did not use live ammunition against the crowd during the day, however, as they had threatened to do, “if necessary”, from Monday, which would have constituted a serious escalation of the crisis.

“We can’t go back”

The 66-year-old president, under unprecedented pressure since the controversial August 9 presidential election, has shown no intention of complying with the demands of his critics. On the contrary. All Belarusian opposition figures are now detained or in exile abroad. On Sunday, the demonstration in Minsk was violently suppressed by the police, who used water cannons and stun grenades against the crowd and arrested hundreds of people. This intervention was the most brutal in weeks.

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Angela Krassovskaya, one of the demonstrators in the Sunday parade, said she was not afraid. “We can’t back down any longer. If they start shooting, then there will be more people in the streets,” she said. Another protester, retired Maria Petrovich, said “the level of violence perpetrated by the authorities is unprecedented”. She said she was ready to continue until the departure of Alexander Lukashenko.

The Belarusian police had already fired live ammunition in early August, during the first demonstrations repressed by force in Brest, in the south of the country. A protester had then died of his injuries. Since the start of the protest, the crackdown has left at least three dead and dozens injured.

An ultimatum set for October 25

In his ultimatum set for October 25, the opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, in addition to the resignation of Alexander Loukachenko, demanded an end to police pressure and the release of all “political prisoners”.

In another message broadcast on Sunday, she called on her fellow citizens to “continue to express our demands in a peaceful and resolute manner”. “We will not stop until every political prisoner has been released, the security forces have started to protect their people, and law and fair elections return to Belarus.”

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Apart from the big demonstration last Sunday, other smaller gatherings have been put down by the police this week. On Monday, police dispersed a protest by retirees with tear gas and stun grenades, marching in red and white opposition through the streets of Minsk. Saturday, during the traditional demonstration of women and that of students, 58 people including journalists were arrested, according to the authorities.

Hundreds of demonstrators, leaders of political movements, labor organizations and journalists have been arrested since the protests began. While Alexander Lukashenko enjoys the support of Moscow, he is under threat of sanctions from the European Union, which rejected the results of the August 9 election and which has already sanctioned 40 regime officials, including the Minister of the Interior and his deputy.

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