Tens of thousands of Belarusians protest against government in Minsk, army issues warning

MINSK/MOSCOW (REUTERS) – Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters packed Minsk’s streets on Sunday (Aug 23) as the army waded into the Belarus political crisis, warning that the military rather than police would respond to opposition unrest near the city’s national memorials.

Huge nationwide demonstrations that erupted after the country’s disputed election on Aug 9 have provided the biggest challenge yet to veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year-old rule 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 Mr Lukashenko and chanted for him to leave power and for new elections to be held.

They marched towards a monument that was surrounded by a chain of security service members clad in military uniform, a Reuters witness said.

Until now, the police have handled crowd control on their own, but the defence ministry said it would take on security around national memorials and issued a direct warning to protesters.

The ministry said that memorials, specifically ones to those killed in World War II, 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.

MOSCOW’S VIEW

Protests triggered by Mr 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, Ms Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania.

Powerful neighbour and traditional ally Russia issued some of its strongest comments yet criticising Ms Tsikhanouskaya on Sunday.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described her role as intentionally destabilising 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,” Mr Lavrov was cited by the RIA news agency as saying.

“It is also significant that she is making her statements ever more frequently in English,” Mr Lavrov was cited 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, as well as by aiming to join the European Union and Nato.

Mr Lavrov said there was no way to prove that Mr Lukashenko did not win the Aug 9 election, since international observers were not present. Mr Lavrov said such observers had declined an invitation to monitor the vote.

By calling for Mr Lukashenko to quit, protesters were pushing for a Venezuela-style crisis, Mr Lavrov said.

“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,” Mr Lavrov was cited as saying.

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