Tens of thousands defy police operations to protest in Belarus

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Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched in the Belarusian capital Minsk.

Minsk, Belarus:

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on Sunday, opposing a strong presence of the security forces, which included water cannons and armored vehicles.

The protest came a day after police arrested hundreds of demonstrators during a women’s march in the capital.

The opposition movement has continued a wave of large-scale demonstrations every Sunday since President Alexander Lukashenko won a controversial victory in the August 9 polls.

People with red and white protest flags gathered at the “Justice March” walked through the central streets holding placards with slogans like “Cowards beat up women” and “Get out!”

Natalya Chizhevich, a 60-year-old retired teacher, said she came every week.

“Europe is not going to help us get rid of Lukashenko, the people themselves have to remove him,” she said.

Several independent media put the number in the tens of thousands, while the opposition newspaper Nasha Niva increased the number significantly to 150,000. Previous marches have had an estimated turnout of at least 100,000.

“I hope it won’t let up. We come out every time, it’s such a breath of fresh air,” said another protester, 33-year-old Maxim Karpov.

“All of this gives us strength to keep fighting.”

Police and internal troops brought military trucks, water cannons and armored personnel carriers into the city center and set up barbed wire.

In the evening, a large number of riot police with helmets and signs competed against massed demonstrators with flag waving after they had initially arrested a small number.

The Viasna rights group said at least 30 have been detained in Minsk and 33 in other cities.

In the southwestern city of Brest, police said they used tear gas against demonstrators in tense street collisions and an officer fired a stun grenade into the air.

The government ordered a reduction in mobile internet coverage during the protests, while central Minsk metro stations were closed.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who defeated Lukashenko in the elections and sought refuge in Lithuania, praised the demonstrators for “courageously standing up for what they want”.

The mass protest took place after riot police cracked down on peaceful demonstrators on Saturday wearing shiny accessories for their so-called “Sparkly March”.

They dragged protesters into vans and lifted some women off their feet to carry them.

Belarusian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said on Sunday that police arrested 415 people in Minsk and 15 in other cities for violating the rules for mass demonstrations. She said 385 had been released.

– ‘Worth fighting for’ –

The scale of the arrests on Saturday led the opposition coordination council to warn of a “new phase in the escalation of violence against peaceful demonstrators”.

Among those detained was one of the most famous faces of the protest movement, 73-year-old activist Nina Baginskaya, although she was later released.

The police’s aggressive tactics prompted an opposition Telegram channel, Nexta, which has more than two million subscribers, to publish a list of the names and ranks of more than 1,000 police officers.

Protesters have tried to remove the masks and balaclavas used by the police who wear civilian clothes or uniforms without badges or name tags during demonstrations.

Opposition leader Tikhanovskaya said Saturday that Belarusians are ready to undress police by obeying “criminal orders” of anonymity.

Lukashenko has turned down opposition calls for his resignation and has sought help from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has promised law enforcement officials if necessary assistance and a $ 1.5 billion loan.

Tikhanovskaya will meet with the European Union’s foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday as the EU prepares sanctions against those it blames for the rigging of elections and the regime’s violent crackdown on protesters.

The authorities have detained or evicted many of Tikhanovskaya’s allies who led the Coordination Council.

Campaign partner Maria Kolesnikova has been arrested on charges of undermining national security.

She published a message to the demonstrators on Sunday: “It is worth fighting for freedom. Do not be afraid to be free!”.

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