MINSK • Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters packed the streets of Minsk yesterday as the army waded into Belarus’ political crisis, warning that it, not the police, would respond to any opposition unrest near the city’s national memorials.
Demonstrations have been held in the capital and other Belarusian towns since Aug 9, when an election – which protesters describe as rigged – granted veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office.
The streets of Minsk turned red and white as a flood of demonstrators carried flags symbolising their opposition to Mr Lukashenko, demanding he quit after 26 years in power and new elections be held, videos showed.
They marched towards a monument that was surrounded by a chain of security service members clad in military uniform, a witness said.
The Defence Ministry said it had taken over responsibility for the protection of such memorials, and that any unrest near them would elicit a response from the army.
Describing the protesters as “fascists” and writing the majority of its statement in capital letters, the Defence Ministry said the memorials, specifically to victims of World War II, were holy sites that must not be desecrated.
“We categorically warn: Any violation of peace and order in such places – you will have the army to deal with now, not the police,” it wrote in capital letters.
In a statement, the Belarus Interior Ministry warned that any unsanctioned protests were considered illegal and said 22 people had been arrested the previous day, when smaller-scale protests took place across 55 towns and cities.
Solidarity rallies were also scheduled in neighbouring Lithuania, where demonstrators planned to form a human chain from Vilnius to the border with Belarus, 31 years after residents of the Baltic states joined hands and linked their capital cities in a mass protest against Soviet rule.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Mr Josep Borrell, warned yesterday that Belarus should not be allowed to become a “second Ukraine” and said it was necessary to deal with President Lukashenko.
Mr Lukashenko ordered his army into full combat readiness during an army inspection on Saturday near the border with the EU and warned about Nato troop “stirrings” in Europe.
“The Fatherland is now in danger. We cannot joke,” Mr Lukashenko said.
The unlikely leader of Belarus’ opposition, 37-year-old Ms Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled to Vilnius fearing reprisals for claiming victory in the election and mounting the greatest challenge to Mr Lukashenko over his 26-year rule.
In an interview ahead of yesterday’s demonstration, she urged protesters to continue to exert pressure on the authorities, saying it was “important to continue to be united in the struggle for rights”.
The authorities have to understand that “we are not a protest movement… We are a majority and we will not step away”, she said.
Moscow considers reform of the Belarusian Constitution a viable solution to the country’s political crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said yesterday.
Mr Lavrov also said that Moscow believes the situation in Belarus is now stabilising.
SENDING A MESSAGE
We are not a protest movement… We are a majority and we will not step away.
MS SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA (above), the unlikely leader of Belarus’ opposition, in an interview ahead of yesterday’s protest. She urged the demonstrators to continue to exert pressure on the authorities, saying it was “important to continue to be united in the struggle for rights”. She had fled to Vilnius, Lithuania, fearing reprisals for claiming victory in the election.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
Army warns Belarus protesters
It was a sea of red and white at Independence Square in Minsk yesterday, as tens of thousands of protesters carried flags to symbolise their opposition to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Mass demonstrations have been held in the capital and other parts of the country since the disputed election on Aug 9 which returned Mr Lukashenko to his sixth term in office. The Belarus army warned yesterday that it, and not the police, would respond to any opposition unrest near the city’s national memorials.