Belarusian protesters are due to stage a new march on Sunday against strongman Alexander Lukashenko in defiance of authorities’ threat to open fire in an increasingly dangerous standoff between the opposition and the regime.
The ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million has been gripped by historic protests after Lukashenko claimed victory in August 9 elections over Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 38-year-old popular opposition candidate.
The protest movement has kept up a series of large-scale demonstrations for the past two months, with around 100,000 people or more taking to the streets every Sunday.
The new demonstration in the capital Minsk is set to take place after Tikhanovskaya, who was granted shelter in EU member Lithuania, said Lukashenko must quit power before October 25, warning he would otherwise face a crippling general strike.
Tikhanovskaya, who maintains she was the true winner of the August polls, also said Lukashenko must release political prisoners and halt the “state terror” unleashed by authorities against peaceful protesters.
Since the start of the post-election crackdown in which several people died and thousands have been arrested, harrowing accounts have emerged of abuse in Belarusian 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 more than two-month standoff between Lukashenko and protesters.
Earlier this week police claimed that protests were becoming more radicalised and warned that law enforcement would use lethal weapons “if necessary.”
On Friday, a senior interior ministry official, Nikolai Karpenkov, said firearms would be used “in a humane manner” and selectively against protesters who put up resistance.
Ahead of Sunday’s march Ivan Tertel, the head of the Belarusian security service, the KGB, warned provocations were being prepared to “destabilise the situation in our country”
He did not say who was behind the alleged plot but said the organisers and their “foreign-based supervisors” planned to pin the blame for the provocations’ “severe consequences” on Belarusian law enforcement.
Speaking to AFP, Lukashenko critic Dmitry Malets dismissed the latest threats to shoot at protesters as a new intimidation tactic, adding police have used firearms against demonstrators before.
“But when they fired before, they didn’t give any warnings,” the 33-year-old added.
Alexei Antonov, a regular at opposition rallies, said his friends and acquaintances supported Tikhanovskaya’s call for a general strike.
“They are discussing it, and many are ready to join,” Antonov told AFP.
Opposition Telegram channel Nexta Live, which has coordinated protesters and is followed by more than two million subscribers, said the Sunday protest was dubbed “the March of Partisans.”
Nexta appeared to draw historic parallels, comparing Lukashenko to an “occupier” and Belarusian protesters to “partisans”. During World War II Belarus was occupied by Nazi Germany and boasted Europe’s largest partisan movement.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has refused to step down and secured backing from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on Lukashenko as the bloc seeks to step up pressure over his regime’s crackdown on protesters.
Diplomats said Lukashenko’s name would be added to a list of 40 Belarusian officials already sanctioned by the EU.
Several hundred people protested in Minsk on Saturday and several dozen were arrested, said Viasna rights group.—APP