Kiev – Belarusian security forces arrested dozens of people on Thursday as protesters responded to a call by opposition officials to step up demonstrations against veteran President Alexander Lukashenko in order to urge him to resign.
Viasna-96 (Spring-96) rights group said at least 45 people had been arrested, while material circulated by local media showed isolated incidents of police grabbing or chasing protesters in the street.
The authorities had brought police buses, water cannons and prisoner cars to the center of the capital Minsk in anticipation of the protests on the country’s unofficial “Freedom Day”.
Protesters, some of them carried red and white opposition flags, marched through the streets while cars honked their horns in solidarity.
Lukashenko, 66, has faced the greatest challenge to his nearly 27-year rule since protesters took to the streets after he was declared the winner of a presidential election last August they said had been rigged.
He denied election fraud and police cracked down on protests, which drew hundreds of thousands of people before they gave way to smaller marches.
On the occasion of the anniversary of Belarus’ declaration of short-lived independence from Russia in 1918, the exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter: “I urge all friends of Belarus to show solidarity with the Belarusians on Freedom Day on March 25th.”
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“Take political action. Take part in a solidarity rally in your city. Write letters to political prisoners. Post on social media,” she wrote.
Local organizers wanted neighborhood marches, flash mobs and protest symbols to be displayed on Thursday evening, but are preparing a larger protest over the weekend.
The government has announced that it will take revenge against protests.
“These are the absolute enemies of our state … and we will deal with them very quickly,” said Nikolai Karpenkov, Deputy Minister of the Interior.
Lukashenko has retained power with the financial and diplomatic support of Russia, which, according to Western diplomats, sees Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO. Belarus borders with Russia, Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
The crackdown has sparked a diplomatic dispute between Belarus and Poland, which accelerated after the arrest of two Poles this week. Warsaw threatened new retaliatory sanctions on Thursday.