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Videos show Belarus president armed with rifle as massive protests roil capital

Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko seen wearing body armor, as 150,000 rally in Minsk against his election, widely seen as fraudulent

Thousands gather for a protest at Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, August 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
Thousands gather for a protest at Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, August 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — More than 100,000 protesters demanding the resignation of Belarus’ authoritarian president rallied Sunday in a vast square in the capital, and later marched through the city, keeping up the massive outburst of dissent that has shaken the country since a disputed presidential election two weeks ago.

Sunday’s demonstration overflowed Minsk’s sprawling 7-hectare (17-acre) Independence Square. There were no official figures on crowd size, but it appeared to be 150,000 people or more. The demonstrators then marched to another square about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) away.

Protesters say the official August 9 presidential election results that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in a landslide are fraudulent. The size and duration of the protests have been unprecedented for Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people that Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

Video from Belarus on Sunday showed the beleaguered president carrying a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest, as he got off a helicopter that brought him to his working residence on the 15th straight day of protests.

As Lukashenko landed at the Independence Palace in Minsk, protesters were gathered in a nearby square. The video was released on the Telegram messaging app on a channel that other media identified as being close to Lukashenko’s press service.

Police made no immediate efforts to break up Sunday’s protest. Earlier this month, some 7,000 people were arrested at protests after the election, many of them beaten with clubs or wounded by rubber bullets, which only angered ordinary residents even more.

The 65-year-old leader appears to be flailing about for a strategy to counter the demonstrations. He has repeatedly blamed Western interference, claimed the protests were backed by the United States, and accused NATO of building up troop concentrations in Poland and Lithuania on Belarus’ western border, which the alliance has denied. He also claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was willing to offer security assistance to his government to quell the protests if he asked for it.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko arrives to attend a meeting with military officials in Grodno, Belarus, August 22, 2020. (Sergei Shelega/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

Lukashenko has consistently repressed opposition during his time in office and weariness with his hardline rule. Dismay over the country’s deteriorating economy and Lukashenko’s cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic also appear to have galvanized opponents.

“Belarus has changed. Lukashenko has been able to unify everybody, from workers to intelligentsia, in the demand for change,” said protester Slava Chirkov, who attended Sunday’s demonstration with his wife and son.

They held a sign declaring “Lukashenko, your milk has gone sour,” referring to Lukashenko’s former job as the director of a Soviet-era collective farm.

A similarly enormous crowd turned out for a protest a week ago and daily demonstrations have taken place since the vote. Several of the country’s key factories have been hit with protest strikes by workers fed up with government polices. Those strikes not only threaten the already-ailing economy, but show that opposition to Lukashenko extends beyond educated white-collar circles and into his traditional blue-collar base.

“Are you going to work for a dictator? Strike — that’s our answer,” Sergei Dilevsky, leader of the strike committee at the Minsk Tractor Works, one of Belarus’s largest industrial enterprises, told protesters at Sunday’s second rally site.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, reacts during a meeting with her supporters in Minsk, Belarus, July 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

Lukashenko’s main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania the day after the election. Several other possible challengers fled the country even before the election.

An opposition Coordination Council was created last week to develop a strategy for a transition of power, but authorities in Belarus have opened a criminal probe into its formation.

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