Tens of thousands of Belarusians rallied in Minsk on Sunday in the biggest demonstration yet against a disputed election, as President Alexander Lukashenko rejected calls to step down in a defiant speech.
Chanting “Leave!”, the protesters converged on a World War II memorial outside the city centre, with a journalist estimating the turnout at up to 100,000 people, the largest yet in a week of demonstrations since the vote.
Other major Belarusian towns and cities also saw large rallies, local media reported.
Columns of demonstrators raised victory signs and held flowers and balloons as they prepared to march to the central Independence Square, the focus of peaceful demonstrations in recent days.
Those taking part in the “March of Freedom” included a group of veteran paratroopers in uniform berets and a Catholic priest.
Demonstrators held placards with slogans such as “We are against violence” and “Lukashenko must answer for the torture and death”.
“This has never happened before, that Minsk has united, Belarusians have united. This is a festival of freedom,” said Catholic priest Yury Sanko, wearing his dark habit.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen the people so glad,” said one 70-year-old woman protester. “We’re tired of these authorities, of living like serfs in a collective farm.”
Popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had called for a weekend of protests after leaving for neighbouring Lithuania following the disputed election, which gave Lukashenko 80 per cent of the vote.
More and more Belarusians have taken to the streets over the last week to condemn Lukashenko’s disputed victory and a subsequent violent crackdown by riot police and abuse of detainees.
– ‘Defend your country!’ –
Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet country for 26 years, is facing an unprecedented challenge to his leadership.
In a rare campaign-style rally in front of flag-waving supporters in central Minsk, the 65-year-old strongman said: “I called you here not to defend me… but for the first time in a quarter-century, to defend your country and its independence.”
Lukashenko’s press service said 50,000 people attended the rally, though a reporter put the number closer to 10,000.
Standing at a podium in a short-sleeved shirt, Lukashenko insisted on the legitimacy of the presidential poll.
“The elections were valid. There could not be more than 80 per cent of votes falsified,” he said.
He warned that neighbouring EU countries and Ukraine were making calls for fresh elections.
“We won’t give away the country!” he said, while his teenage son Nikolai stood watching nearby.
– Kremlin ‘ready’ to help –
With pressure growing from the street and abroad after the European Union said it would impose new sanctions, Lukashenko has reached out to Russia.
Moscow said Sunday it was ready to provide military help if needed.
The Kremlin said that in a call with Lukashenko, President Vladimir Putin had expressed Russia’s “readiness to provide the needed assistance” including “if necessary” through the CSTO military alliance between six ex-Soviet states.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets over the last week to denounce the election result and support Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other potential candidates including her husband were jailed.
A violent police crackdown on protesters saw more 6,700 people arrested, hundreds wounded and two people dead.
From exile in Lithuania, where she fled on Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya called for a weekend of peaceful rallies including Sunday’s march in Minsk on the one-week anniversary of the vote.
Thousands of opposition supporters had demonstrated in Minsk on Saturday, with many gathering at the spot where a 34-year-old protester died during unrest on Monday.
Many held up photographs of bruised protesters beaten during the crackdown after Amnesty International accused authorities of carrying out “a campaign of widespread torture” to crush the opposition.
– Call for mass strikes –
The opposition has called for a general strike from Monday after hundreds of workers at state-run factories walked off the job on Friday, in a first sign that Lukashenko’s traditional support base was turning against him.
European governments have condemned the election and police crackdown, and EU ministers on Friday agreed to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions.
Opposition newspaper Nasha Niva posted a video of the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, saying he was “shocked by stories of torture and beatings” and expressing his solidarity with the protesters.
Tikhanovskaya has announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to “help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities”.
She demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown.
She has said she will organise new elections if Lukashenko steps down.