Belarusian police have used stun grenades against protesters as more than 100,000 people marched in the capital Minsk demanding President Alexander Lukashenko resign.
The police action came hours before the expiration of an ultimatum set by the opposition: Lukashenko must resign by midnight or face a national strike.
Protesters carrying the red-and-white flags of the Belarusian opposition movement scattered on Sunday as loud bangs and flashes lit up the city’s streets after nightfall, videos showed.
Explosions and white smoke filled residential areas as people hid behind vehicles and ran from police, the videos, shared online by reputable news organisations, showed.
Law enforcement confirmed riot control weapons had been used and detentions had taken place, the TASS and RIA news agencies reported.
It was the 11th straight weekend of mass protests since a disputed election in August plunged the country into turmoil.
Karel Lannoo, CEO at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, told Al Jazeera on Sunday the resilience of the opposition movement was putting huge pressure on Lukashenko.
“They have managed to come out like this each Sunday. This Sunday again more than 100,000 protesters came out even if the police has been very forceful in the streets trying to prevent them from demonstrating,” he said.
“I do not expect Lukashenko to step down today, but I think the resistance remains extremely strong. We also see that all the European countries as well as the United States and other Western countries have given very clear warnings to Lukashenko,” Lannoo said.
“Sooner or later he will have to step down.”
A national strike
Earlier on Sunday, crowds streamed through the capital shouting “strike”, waving flags and beating drums.
At least 12 metro stations were closed, helmeted riot police patrolled the streets and mobile internet services were disrupted in Minsk.
Two journalists were arrested before the protest, a local journalists’ association said.
Tens of people were arrested and security forces used tear gas in the western town of Lida, the Russian news agency RIA quoted the regional branch of the interior ministry as saying.
The Viasna Human Rights Centre reported about 60 arrests in various cities in the country where there were also protests.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century and has shown little inclination to quit, buoyed by loans and the offer of military support from traditional ally Russia.
The president’s main opponents have been jailed or fled into exile following the August 9 election, which Lukashenko’s opponents accuse him of rigging to win a sixth straight term. He denies electoral fraud.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his main electoral challenger, has led calls from exile for a national strike to begin on Monday if Lukashenko refuses to release all political prisoners and resign to make way for a new election.
“Today at 23:59 the term of the People’s Ultimatum will expire, and if the demands are not met, the Belarusians will start a national strike,” she said in a statement.
Lukashenko has signalled that he would ignore the ultimatum.