Belarus opposition holds mass rally in Minsk despite ban

Opposition supporters in Belarus have held a mass rally in the capital Minsk, two weeks after a disputed election gave President Alexander Lukashenko another term in office.

Correspondents in the city said tens of thousands filled the central square despite a heavy police presence, the BBC reported on Sunday.

The protesters say Lukashenko stole the election and want him to resign.

The president has vowed to crush unrest and blamed the dissent on unnamed “foreign-backed revolutionaries”.

Recent protests were met with a crackdown in which at least four people were killed. Demonstrators said they had been tortured in prisons.

According to official results, Lukashenko – who has ruled Belarus for 26 years – won more than 80 per cent of the vote in the 9 August election and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya 10 per cent.

There were no independent observers and the opposition alleges massive vote rigging.

Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to flee to neighbouring Lithuania the day after the election, vowed to “stand till the end” in the protests.

Tens of thousands of people – from the elderly to those with small children – poured into Independence Square on Sunday. Many were carrying the opposition’s red and white flags, and chanted “freedom” and anti-government slogans.

Pro-opposition media say 100,000 people took part. State television put the crowd at 20,000.

After gathering in the square, some demonstrators moved towards the “Hero City” war memorial and the presidential palace. They were blocked by a security cordon before dispersing.

State television released a video showing Lukashenko arriving at the presidential palace by helicopter, wearing a flak jacket and carrying an automatic weapon.

Similar demonstrations were held in other Belarusian cities. Meanwhile in Lithuania, thousands of people – including President Gitanas Nauseda – formed a human chain from the capital Vilnius to the Belarusian border in solidarity with those protesting in Minsk.

More human chains were planned in the Estonian capital Tallinn and in Prague in the Czech Republic.

This weekend’s rally in Minsk follows the country’s biggest protest in modern history last Sunday, when hundreds of thousands filled the streets. Strike action in key factories across Belarus is also keeping up the pressure on the president.