Wednesday 10/28/20
BELARUS

As 100,000 march in Minsk, Lukashenko arms himself with a Kalashnikov

The presidential palace has increasingly taken the role of a fortress and was surrounded by armoured cars and security forces to stop protesters from storming the palace.

23 August 2020, Belarus, Minsk: People rally with flags of the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic (the Belarusian opposition flag) during a protest at the Independence Square against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, two weeks after a disputed election returned him to power. Photo: Ulf Mauder/dpa.
People rally with flags of the Belarusian opposition flag during a protest at the Independence Square. Photo: Ulf Mauder/dpa.

While more than 100,000 demonstrators joined a Sunday rally against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the embattled leader was digging in at the presidential palace with a machine gun and a bullet-proof vest.

Two weeks after a disputed election returned him to power, protesters returned to the streets in historic numbers for a second weekend, shouting "Uchodi!" - "Get out!" on Independence Square in the capital Minsk in defiance of threats from the state.

Meanwhile state media showed footage of the president armed with a Kalashnikov submachine gun and bullet proof vest condemning the "rats" outside his official residence.

The presidential palace has increasingly taken the role of a fortress and was surrounded by armoured cars and security forces to stop protesters from storming the palace.

"We'll stand by your side until the end," security forces chanted when the president visited the palace gates. "Thank you, you're great guys," he told the forces standing guard.

Fight to the death

The 65-year-old president, who in a quarter century of rule has tolerated little dissent in the former Soviet republic, has said he himself would fight to the death to maintain power if necessary.

During the protests outside, security forces had blocked many metro stations, forcing large groups of people to venture out on foot. The police warned against participation in the unauthorized rally via loudspeaker announcements.

"The holding of mass events is illegal, in case of participation we intend to hold you accountable," the Belarusian Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The Defence Ministry meanwhile issued a stark warning: "If there should be disturbances of order or unrest in these squares, you will no longer have to deal with the [police], but with the army."

Opposition movements online estimated the peaceful protests at 200,000 people - about the same number as on Sunday a week ago, when protests of this size occurred for the first time ever. 

The demonstrations come the day after Lukashenko ordered the military in the ex-Soviet republic to use the "most stringent measures" to end attempts to overthrow his government, state media reported.

Revolution in Belarus

Lukashenko said at a military base in the western Belarusian city of Grodno, near the borders of Poland and Lithuania, that foreign powers had been attempting to foment a revolution in Belarus, claims both Lithuania and Poland have stringently denied.

The runner-up in the election, according to the disputed official tally, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has fled to neighbouring NATO member state Lithuania amid the police crackdown on her supporters.

On Sunday she described the warnings as "the usual intimidation of the people."

"It is a step that people in Belarus are already used to," she said in an interview with the BNS agency. "But Belarusians are no longer afraid and are ready to defend their rights. Nobody believes the president anymore."

Tikhanovskaya's comments came as tens of thousands in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia formed a 30 kilometre human chain in a show of solidarity for Belarusian demonstrators.

The gesture marked the anniversary of the original Baltic Way, which saw around 2 million people joined hands on August 23, 1989 to build a human chain across the three Baltic states.

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