At least 100,000 Belarusian protesters took to the streets of Minsk yesterday in one of the biggest demonstrations yet against President Alexander Lukashenko after he claimed a landslide victory in an election his opponents say was rigged.
As public anger continued to build against Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet nation for 26 years, Moscow offered him support by saying that it would send paratroopers.
A wave of protests has swept Belarus since the August 9 presidential election, which demonstrators say was actually won by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Key opposition figures have since either been jailed or fled the country, with Tsikhanouskaya now in Lithuania.
Lukashenko denies the election was rigged and has said that foreign powers are behind the protests.
A vast column of protesters marched through the capital Minsk towards a government district yesterday, chanting “Long live Belarus” and “You’re a rat”, a taunt that has frequently been used against Lukashenko during demonstrations.
They came to a halt and chanted “fascists” as hundreds of riot police with shields blocked off the road.
Meanwhile, in the city of Brest, police used water cannons on protesters, according to the Nexta Live channel.
Police said they had detained more than 400 people in Minsk alone.
A Reuters witness said that detentions were continuing in the evening.
The atmosphere was tense, with a large police presence in parts of the capital, and some central areas sealed off with barbed wire, including Oktyabrskaya Square and Independence Square – common focus points of anti-government rallies.
The Interfax Russian news agency reported that shots had been fired into the air to warn off protesters in an area of Minsk where the Belarusian leadership lives.
An interior ministry said later one shot was fired in the air.
The unrest comes as Lukashenko, in power since 1994, prepares to travel to Russia today for talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Moscow, a neighbour and traditional ally, has stepped up support, offering to potentially restructure Belarusian debt, and providing banking liquidity.
It has also said Russian riot police could be made available if needed.
On the streets of Minsk, some critics of Lukashenko expressed hope that the sheer size of the protests yesterday would undermine the Belarusian leader and make it difficult for Putin to back him openly.
“We have to show with this march that he (Lukashenko) doesn’t control the country, that he is not in a position to speak on behalf of Belarusians,” said Gennady, 35, a logistics worker who declined to give his surname.
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