Tens of thousands of people marched through Minsk and other cities on Sunday, holding pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko a day before the opposition threatens to launch a national strike if he refuses to step down.
Crowds flocked through the capital, shouting “strike”, waving red-and-white opposition flags and pounding drums on the 11th stretch of the weekend with mass protests since a disputed election threw the country into turmoil.
Twelve metro stations were closed, helmeted rebel police patrolled the streets and mobile internet services were cut off in Minsk. Two journalists were detained before the protest, a local journalists’ association said.
Tens of thousands were detained and security forces used tear gas in the western city of Lida, the Russian news agency RIA quoted the regional department of the Interior Ministry.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko, has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century and has shown little inclination to quit, backed by loans and offers of military support from traditional Allied Russia.
The president’s main opponents have been jailed or fled into exile after the August 9 election, which Lukashenko’s opponents accuse him of rigging to win a sixth term. He denies election fraud.
Nationwide strike ultimatum
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, his main election challenger, has led calls from exile that a national strike should begin on Monday if Lukashenko refuses to release all political prisoners and withdraws to make room for a new election.
“Today at “At 23:59, the people’s ultimatum expires, and if the demands are not met, the Belarusians will start a national strike,” she said in a statement.
Lukashenko has signaled that he would ignore the ultimatum.
The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada have imposed sanctions on a number of senior officials in Belarus accused of fraud and human rights abuses in the wake of the presidential election.
Lukashenko has accused Western countries of interfering in Belarus’ internal affairs and trying to incite a violent uprising against him.
In a call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday, he said Belarus and Russia were ready to respond jointly to external threats, Belarusian state television reported.