Protesters swarm into Belarus capital, briefly approach Lukashenko’s residence
MINSK: Tens of thousands of protesters demanding President Alexander Lukashenko step down flooded into Minsk on Sunday, at one point demonstrating briefly near his residence in a pointed display of opposition to his long rule, before dispersing peacefully.
Huge nationwide demonstrations that erupted after the country’s disputed election on Aug 9 have provided the biggest challenge yet to the veteran leader’s 26 years at the helm and tested the loyalty of his security forces.
The streets of Minsk turned red and white as a flood of demonstrators carried flags symbolising their opposition to Lukashenko and chanted for him to leave power and for new elections to be held.
The crowd marched towards Lukashenko’s residence at the Independence Palace, on the northern edge of the capital, the majority gathering at some distance, while a smaller group approached to between 10 and 20 metres of the building, a witness said.ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER AD
A helicopter was seen flying out of the residence as protesters milled below, the witness said.
Video circulated by state media journalists later showed Lukashenko arriving by helicopter at the residence holding a rifle.
After less than an hour, the majority of the protesters began to march back towards the city centre.
It was the first time in this month’s demonstrations that protesters have neared the building’s doors. The building was surrounded by lines of armed police.
The approach to the palace took place after a crowd estimated by a witness to number as many as 200,000 rallied in central Minsk for the second weekend in a row.
The crowd began to disperse in early evening.
Earlier, the defence ministry said it would take on security around national memorials and issued a direct warning to protesters whom it likened to fascists.
The ministry said memorials, specifically ones to the dead of World War Two, 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 said in a statement. “We, soldiers, will not allow these places to be desecrated, there can be no fascism there!” The interior ministry issued its own statement warning that any unsanctioned protests would be considered illegal. It said 22 people had been arrested on Saturday when smaller-scale protests took place across 55 towns and cities.
Protests triggered by Lukashenko’s claims of a landslide election victory on Aug 9 found a leader in opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher who took her jailed husband’s place on the ballot.
Following threats to her safety, Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighboring Lithuania.
Traditional ally Russia issued some of its strongest comments yet criticizing Tsikhanouskaya on Sunday.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described her role as intentionally destabilizing and said her statements were directed at a Western audience.
“It seems she wasn’t allowed to calm down and she has started to make political statements, harsh ones, demanding walk-outs, strikes, protests,” Lavrov was cited by the RIA news agency as saying.
He described her political agenda as the opposite of constructive, focused instead on creating disunity by generating anti-Russian sentiment and squeezing out Russian language and culture, and by aiming to join the European Union and Nato.
Tsikhanouskaya, who speaks Russian at home, has said she would like to see Belarus maintain close relations with Russia, but that Belarus should remain independent and not integrate further into Russia.
Lavrov said that by calling for Lukashenko to quit, protesters were pushing for a Venezuela-style crisis.
“Some Belarusian opposition members, who live in the West… really want for things to be different: for there to be bloodshed, to provoke a reaction by Belarusian security services, who are not touching anyone right now and are not getting involved in the holding of peaceful demonstrations,” Lavrov was cited as saying.