Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Belarusian capital, Minsk and other cities on Saturday in a further challenge to the rule of long-time President Alexander Lukashenko.
The crowds of female demonstrators, who had responded to an opposition call for a “women’s march”, included many holding up the white-red-white flag of the opposition and others carrying flowers.
The march comes after the authoritarian regime toughened its line on dissent despite growing international pressure following elections in August that have been criticised as neither free not fair.
German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, warned on Saturday that unless Lukashenko responded to the European Union’s concerns, more sanctions could follow those already agreed by the bloc.
Lukashenko needed to talk to the opposition and agree to rerun the election, Maas told the Bild newspaper.
The crackdown on protests in Belarus appeared to show no sign of letting up, however.
Charges are expected against protesters who were arrested on Friday, the country’s Interior Ministry said.
About 40 demonstrators were detained, but only about half of them will face charges, the ministry said.
Belarusian human rights group Viasna confirmed the detentions, noting that many of those taken into custody had been demonstrating peacefully.
Some of those taken at a university were brutalised while being detained, it said.
Lukashenko claims to have won the Aug. 9 elections by a margin of more than 80 per cent.
He has already ruled for a quarter century.
But many Belarusians believe the results were fixed and have come out for regular protests since the vote.
Students have led many of the recent protests, now that many of them are back on campus with the resumption of the university school year.
The Education Ministry has vowed to crack down harder on universities in light of their role in the protests.
Protesters have called for another major demonstration on Sunday.
The pressure on the opposition has led to several key figures leaving the country, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania soon after losing to Lukashenko in the elections.
In a video broadcast, Tikhanovskaya emphasized that she did not want to close herself off from contact with Russia, but Moscow had thus far not gotten in touch.
“I call on everyone, including Russia and neighbouring countries, to respect the sovereignty of our people,’’ she said, adding that Belarus’ independence was not for sale.
Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin travelled to Belarus this week to meet with Lukashenko in a show of support.
Russia remains Lukashenko’s strongest ally despite the long-time Belarusian leader’s allegations ahead of last month’s disputed presidential election that Russian paramilitary forces had been seeking to destabilise Belarus.
It was also revealed on Saturday that another prominent opposition politician, Olga Kovalkova, had left Belarus for neighbouring Poland.
She told internet news site tut.by that she had been pressured into leaving by authorities and that she wants to return to Minsk soon.
The 36-year-old Kovalkova, a confidante of Tikhanovskaya’s, was arrested in August and spent several days in detention before being released on Thursday. (dpa/NAN)