Demonstrators have massed in central Minsk after opposition leaders called for a huge rally to demand the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in the latest in a wave of protests against his disputed re-election earlier this month.
Lukashenko dispatched riot police to disperse rallies that erupted after he claimed a sixth presidential term in an election two weeks ago that critics say was rigged.
Thousands of demonstrators draped in red-and-white flags of the opposition on Sunday flooded Independence Square in the capital as a group of women protested against police violence ahead of the opposition’s “March of New Belarus”.
“We have just two demands: fair elections and stop the violence,” 32-year-old Igor told AFP news agency.
Officials issued a warning to Belarusians against participating in “illegal demonstrations” and local news outlets published videos on social media showing water cannon and riot police with shields moving towards Independence Square.
The defence ministry said it would intervene to protect World War II memorials, which it described as “sacred places”, and four metro stations in central Minsk were closed.
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Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen reporting from Minsk said that along with riot police, tens of military trucks had showed up with soldiers inside.
“It was the first time we saw the military being deployed right here in the heart of Minsk. There was a lot of concern that there would be this violent crackdown but that didn’t deter anyone. People just came sreaming in,” Vaessen said.
“It looks like the military might have just been there to pose a threat to the masses. Maybe Lukashenko was hoping that just putting the military out there and riot police that would scare the people away but people are teling me all the time and also today that they have no fear anymore.”
Solidarity rallies were also due in neighbouring Lithuania, where demonstrators planned to form a human chain from Vilnius to the Belarus border, three decades after residents of the Baltic states joined hands and linked their capital cities in a mass protest against Soviet rule.
The European Union has rejected the results of the presidential election that gave Lukashenko 80 percent of the vote. The bloc has also promised to sanction Belarusians responsible for ballot fraud and a police crackdown that saw nearly 7,000 people arrested and sparked gruesome allegations of torture and abuse in police custody.
Lukashenko has brushed aside calls to step down, dismissed the possibility of holding a new vote and instructed his security services to quell unrest and secure the borders.
His opponents have organised strikes and the largest protests in the ex-Soviet country’s recent history over his re-election, with more than 100,000 people turning out in Minsk last weekend.
Yet fewer workers at state-run factories – usually a bastion of support for Lukashenko – have continued to strike, with activists citing pressure from the authorities.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has said her country’s people have changed and will no longer accept President Lukashenko.
Tikhanovskaya, who has fled to neighbouring Lithuania citing safety concerns, said Lukashenko should “step away” and “it is better for everybody”.
“Sooner or later he will have to step away. It’s better for everybody. It’s better for the country if it will happen in the shortest time,” the 37-year-old leader told Al Jazeera.
“The Belarusian people have changed. They will never accept the old authorities.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Belarusian opposition members who left Belarus during recent protests of seeking “bloodshed” according to the RIA news agency on Sunday.
Lavrov said that it would be impossible to prove that Lukashenko did not win the election in the absence of international observers, the Interfax news agency reported.
He also said that Moscow calls for the launch of a genuinely broad national dialogue in Belarus, RIA reported.
Lukashenko has threatened to shut down production lines from Monday where workers have put down their tools.
Lukashenko’s military inspection this weekend came ahead of large-scale military exercises planned on the border with the EU between August 28 and 31.
Al Jazeera and news agencies