Thousands of Belarusians have staged a peaceful new march, keeping pressure on strongman Alexander Lukashenko who has refused to quit after his disputed re-election and turned to Russia for help to stay in power.
Holding red-and-white flags and placards, protesters including many students took to the streets of the capital Minsk on Sunday despite authorities mounting a massive show of force and detaining some demonstrators.
Troops, water cannon, armoured personnel carriers and armoured reconnaissance vehicles were deployed to the city centre ahead of the march and metro stations in Minsk’s centre were closed.
Unprecedented protests broke out after Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet nation for 26 years, claimed re-election with 80 percent of the vote on August 9.
Opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says she has won the vote but Lukashenko’s security forces have arrested thousands of protesters, many of whom accused police of beatings and torture.
Several people have died in the crackdown but Belarusians have been demonstrating across the country for nearly a month, with more than 100,000 people flooding the streets of the capital, Minsk, for three straight weekends.
Dozens of people, including student protesters and journalists covering rallies, were arrested this week.
On Saturday, about 4,000 people took to the streets and more than 90 people were arrested, the interior ministry said.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice, urged supporters to turn up for Sunday’s “March of Unity” set to begin at 11:00 GMT.
“Remember we are strong as long as we are united,” she said in a short video address.
Tikhanovskaya contested the election after her blogger husband was jailed and barred from running along with several other prominent Lukashenko critics.
She left Belarus under pressure from authorities and took shelter in EU member Lithuania.
On Friday, Tikhanovskaya addressed a meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by video link, calling for sanctions against those responsible for the alleged electoral fraud and rights violations.
The Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have blacklisted Lukashenko and 29 high-ranking officials in his administration but other European Union members appear reluctant to target the Belarus strongman personally.
Russia has said it will respond to any Western attempts to “sway the situation” and President Vladimir Putin has raised the possibility of sending military support.
Putin has been eager to unify Russia and Belarus, and Moscow has accompanied its recent offers of economic and military aid with calls for tighter integration.
Lukashenko has in the past ruled out outright unification and sought to play Moscow against the West but his options now are limited.
On Thursday, Lukashenko hosted Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and replaced the chief of the KGB security service in what some analysts said might have been done under pressure from Moscow.
The embattled leader said Russia and Belarus had agreed on issues they “could not agree earlier” and he planned to “dot all the i’s” with Putin in Moscow in the next few weeks.