Tens of thousands march in Belarus capital despite crackdown

Tens of thousands march in Belarus capital despite crackdown

Local media estimated that more than 100,000 people attended Sunday's protest
Local media estimated that more than 100,000 people attended Sunday's protest

MINSK - Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched through Minsk Sunday, calling for an end to strongman Alexander Lukashenko's rule amid a heavy security presence and despite dozens of arrests.

Belarus protests have entered a third week since the disputed presidential election on August 9 in which Lukashenko claimed victory.

Opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says she was the true winner, meanwhile.

An AFP journalist and local media estimated that more than 100,000 people attended Sunday's protest, equalling the scale of rallies on previous weekends, the largest in the country since independence from the former USSR.

A crowd gathered outside Lukashenko's official residence, the Palace of Independence, which was guarded by riot police and special forces personnel backed up by rooftop snipers.

Sunday's rally came on Lukashenko's 66th birthday and protesters carried quirky handmade "gifts" including a cardboard toilet with a sign urging the strongman to flush himself away, a coffin marked "Political corpse" and a picture of a cockroach, the opposition's nickname for the president.

Some laid flowers and symbolic gifts on the ground in front of a tall barrier manned by riot police equipped with helmets and shields.

This was the "boldest show of civil disobedience in three weeks of protests," opposition newspaper Nasha Niva reported.

Activist Maria Kolesnikova, Tikhanovskaya's campaign partner, asked in vain to enter the residence for talks.

Presidential aide Nikolai Latyshenok came out to speak to protesters, but insisted Lukashenko would not negotiate with the opposition.

A Telegram messenger channel linked to Lukashenko's press service posted a picture of him in a bullet-proof vest holding a gun, and said it was taken at the palace as protesters were outside.

The protests began breaking up towards evening as heavy rain fell and people began leaving. Riot police also began to push protesters away from the palace.

Meanwhile, thousands of people attended similar rallies in other Belarusian cities, local media reported.

- Protesters face off against riot police -

The Minsk Peace March started at 2pm local time (1100 GMT) and police began to detain protesters almost immediately as people attempted to reach the central Independence Square.

Columns of protesters walked through the centre, carrying placards and the country's historic red-and-white flag, many with children in tow, as drivers honked car horns in support.

Some linked arms to march down a main street, while women took black-clad riot police to task or lay on the street in front of them.

The Belarusian interior ministry said police detained 125 people within the first two hours, Belta state news agency reported.

They faced a charge of taking part in illegal mass protests. Three were detained for damaging a police car, the ministry said.

Protesters faced off against armed interior troops and riot police who used their shields to block people's passage.

Other group tried to bypass police, moving in groups along various streets in the the city.

But despite the heavy security, the atmosphere remained relaxed and festive, with a violinist playing a protest song and people dancing to rave music.

Meanwhile, more than 360 Belarusian sports figures including Olympic athletes signed an open letter calling for new elections and condemning police violence.

- 'Morally bankrupt' -

The latest rally came amid a crackdown on media freedoms.

On Saturday the Belarusian foreign ministry withdrew accreditation for journalists from international media, including AFP, the BBC and Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe.

A government official cited "counter-terrorism" grounds for the move, which was condemned by Germany and the United States.

Reporters covering the protests have been detained and police have confiscated memory cards from photographers' cameras.

The authorities have also shut off Internet access repeatedly, making it harder for independent media to report from the scene.

Tikhanovskaya, who has fled to Lithuania, on Saturday called it "another sign that this regime is morally bankrupt" and was resorting to "fear and intimidation."

European leaders have urged Lukashenko to establish a dialogue with the opposition, while Tikhanovskaya's supporters have set up a Coordination Council to organise a peaceful transfer of power.

Belarusian authorities have detained several council members however, and hauled in others for questioning, including Nobel Literature Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

Lukashenko spoke before the protest began with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wished him a happy birthday.

The Kremlin said they agreed to meet in Moscow in the coming weeks and reaffirmed intentions to strengthen Belarus-Russian ties, after Putin this week vowed military support for Lukashenko if needed.

Putin said Russia was prepared to deploy a reserve of law enforcement officers if the situation got "out of control."

Three people have died during post-election protests and hundreds have been injured. More than 7,000 people have been detained.

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