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Belarusians Pack Minsk Streets Calling For Lukashenka's Ouster

By RFE/RL's Belarus Service August 23, 2020

MINSK -- Tens of thousands of people have packed the streets of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, for a rally against the disputed reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and a postelection crackdown amid a heavy military presence in the city and a fresh warning from the army.

The crowd, estimated at more than 100,000 people, filled the streets of the city center on August 23 for what is being billed as the March of New Belarus as protests entered a 15th day in the Eastern European country of 9.5 million.

Thousands were gathered on Independence Square, waving white and red Belarusian flags and unfurling long banners with white and red stripes.

Protesters chanted "Leave!" and "Get out!" as they called for Lukashenka to step down after 26 years of authoritarian rule.

There were no reports of violence.

As people began dispersing, Lukashenka was shown in a video posted on Telegram arriving at Independence Palace by helicopter. He stepped off the aircraft wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a rifle.

Ahead of the rally, the Defense Ministry announced that the army would take responsibility for protecting national memorials from protesters.

Describing the protesters as "fascists," the Defense Ministry said in a statement that the memorials, specifically those dedicated to victims of World War II, must not be desecrated. The ministry warned against any violation of peace and order in such places, writing in all capital letters, "You will have the army to deal with now, not the police."

The statement came as army personnel were spotted being transported into Minsk in military transporters.

Users of a number of large network operators had problems connecting to the Internet.

Mobile operator A1 said in a message to subscribers posted on Facebook that at the request of state authorities its network had been "significantly reduced in some areas of the city."

It apologized and said it hoped for a speedy resumption of service.

Protests have been taking place on the streets of Belarus since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the winner of the August 9 poll. More than 7,000 have been detained and hundreds beaten by police. The EU and the United States have criticized the vote and condemned the postelection crackdown.

Protests also took place on August 23 in the Belarusian city of Mogilev as well as outside Belarus in Lithuania and Kyiv, where human chains were formed.

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition candidate who left for Lithuania after the election and claimed to have won from 60 to 70 percent of the vote, said on August 22 that Belarusians must "struggle for their rights" and not be distracted by Lukashenka's claims that the country was under military threat.

"We are people of Belarus and we are a majority and we will not step away. We are not afraid of them any more," she told the AFP news agency.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on August 23 accused Belarusian opposition members who left Belarus of seeking "bloodshed," according to the RIA-Novosti news agency.

He added that Moscow was calling for the launch of a genuinely broad national dialogue in Belarus and said Russia would accept any decision of the Belarusian authorities with regard to dialogue with the opposition.

But he said the Belarusian people "will decide for themselves how to get out of this situation."

He also said there are "clear signs of a normalization" in Belarus, and a proposal on constitutional reform was "a quite promising path."

On August 22, Tsikhanouskaya's team said that the No. 2 U.S. diplomat would meet Tsikhanouskaya in Lithuania, where she has remained since the disputed election.

No election in Belarus under Lukashenka has ever been deemed free or fair by the West.

Meanwhile, the Nasha Niva media site said the body of Mikita Kryutsov was found in a forest near Minsk with signs of multiple beatings. He was reported missing after taking part in protests in Minsk on August 12.

So far, two people have been confirmed killed in the postelection protests in Belarus.

With reporting by Current Time, Belsat, AP, Reuters, and AFP

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/belarusians-gather- for-anti-lukashenka-rally-as-army- issues-warning/30798061.html

Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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