By Claudia Thaler and Christian Thiele - Tribune News Service
MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered throughout Belarus on Sunday to call for longtime President Alexander Lukashenko to step down, despite security services warning that they would crack down on protests.
In Minsk alone, tens of thousands of protesters marched in the streets of the Belarusian capital in bad weather, waving the country's historic red-white-red flag and shouting "Belarus lives" as they moved through the city, observers said. Some reports placed the number of protesters at 100,000.
Many marched past the city's Palace of Independence in another part of the city, where Lukashenko is based. Some waved rainbow flags and played music. Maria Kolesnikova, an opposition politician, marched along with them.
The capital's Independence Square was completely cordoned off and police blocked the protesters' route with barricades and barbed wire. Uniformed officials stood side by side holding shields.
Videos posted online showed armored vehicles on the streets and police dragging protesters into prison transporters and police buses.
The Interior Ministry has said it was prepared to send in more personnel.
The ministry had warned people against participating in the protest, which was called by opposition forces as a "March of Unity" at Minsk's Independence Square.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on her fellow Belarusians not to be intimidated. "Remember, together we are strong," she said in a video message from Lithuania, where she fled to after losing to Lukashenko in the elections.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old foreign-language teacher, registered as a candidate in the election after her husband, a key Lukashenko opponent, was jailed in the run-up to the poll.
More than 100 people were arrested in Minsk ahead of Sunday's demonstration, the Interior Ministry said. More than 165 people were arrested according to Viasna, a human rights organization.
Demonstrations also swept through other cities. Videos from the city of Grodno showed marchers being stormed by groups of uniformed officers. There were also reports of tear gas being fired.
Security personnel used tear gas against marchers in Brest, according to opposition groups on the Telegram messaging service.
Sunday is the main day for opposition protests in Belarus and last Sunday the demonstrations drew hundreds of thousands of people, despite a ban.
Protesters are calling not only for Lukashenko's resignation, but also for the release of political prisoners, new elections and the prosecution of police violence.
Anger is also growing about a ban preventing Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the head of the Catholic Church in Belarus, from entering the country.
German church officials called the ban "unacceptable" and joined the ranks of those criticizing the Belarusian authorities. Lukashenko has thus far avoided entering into any dialogue with the opposition. He claims to have won the August 9 elections by a margin of over 80%.
He has ruled the former Soviet country for over a quarter century.