Tens of thousands of people have marched through the streets of the Belarusian capital Minsk to demand the resignation of veteran President Alexander Lukashenko, despite a threat by officials to use firearms against protesters.
Belarus, a former Soviet republic closely allied with Russia, has been rocked by strikes and weekly street protests since authorities announced Lukashenko, who has ruled in authoritarian fashion since 1994, had secured re-election on August 9 with 80 percent of votes.
Some protesters chanted “Strike!” and “You and your riot police get out!” during Sunday’s march.
The Interfax news agency put the number of protesters at more than 30,000. While it said about 50 had been arrested by the police, Belarusian interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told the AFP news agency more than 100 people had been arrested in Minsk.
Interfax also reported the mobile broadband signal had been disrupted in parts of the city. It also said loud noises that sounded like stun grenades had been heard close to the march.
A senior police official said last week officers would reserve the right to use firearms against demonstrators.
Images posted on the Telegram channel showed Belarusian security forces deploying water cannon and blockading streets with barbed wire and heavy machinery.
A local media outlet said security forces had fired rubber bullets into the air in response to protesters targeting them with stones.
Security forces have arrested more than 13,000 people since the disputed election – including all significant opposition leaders who have not left the country – and clamped down on independent media.
Several people have also died in the post-election crackdown, with harrowing accounts emerging of abuse in jails. Many said they had been tortured, beaten and humiliated in detention.
Police have acknowledged using water cannon and stun grenades against demonstrators but the use of live ammunition would mark a major escalation in the two-month standoff.
Yet many protesters remain undeterred.
Anzhela Krasovskaya said she was not afraid.
“There’s no way back for us,” Krasovskaya told AFP. “If they start shooting then there would be even more people in the streets.”
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has fled to Lithuania, last week urged Lukashenko to quit by October 25 or face what she said would be nationwide strikes that would paralyse Belarus.
The European Union has refused to recognise the results of the disputed vote. Last week, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on Lukashenko as the bloc seeks to step up pressure over the crackdown on protesters.
A Norwegian politician said on Sunday he had nominated Tikhanovskaya and two other top members of the Belarus opposition for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for organising the peaceful protests.
Geir Toskedal, of the Christian Democratic Party, told the Vart Land daily he had nominated Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo “for their struggle for fair elections and for inspiring peaceful opposition against the illegitimate regime in Belarus”.