Belarus leader vows to hold fast as tens of thousands march for new vote

MINSK (AFP) – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko rejected calls to step down in a defiant speech to supporters yesterday as tens of thousands of opponents rallied for the biggest demonstration yet against his disputed re-election.

The strongman who has ruled the ex-Soviet country for the last 26 years is facing an unprecedented challenge to his leadership from a growing protest movement fanned by a brutal police crackdown.

In a rare campaign-style rally in front of flag-waving supporters in central Minsk, Lukashenko said: “I called you here not to defend me… but for the first time in a quarter-century, to defend your country and its independence.”

Lukashenko’s press service said 50,000 people had taken part in the rally, though an AFP reporter estimated the number was closer to 10,000.

Standing at a podium in a short-sleeved shirt, Lukashenko insisted on the legitimacy of last Sunday’s presidential poll in which he claimed victory over main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with 80 per cent of the vote.

Belarus opposition supporters attend a rally in central Minsk. PHOTO: AFP

“The elections were valid. There could not be more than 80 per cent of votes falsified. We will not hand over the country,” he said.

As he spoke, tens of thousands of people walked down Independence Avenue for a ‘March for Freedom’ called by the opposition to keep up pressure after a week of demonstrations.

Columns of protesters raised victory signs and held flowers and balloons. Many wore white, the colour that has come to symbolise the opposition movement.

Demonstrators held placards with slogans such as “We are against violence” and “Lukashenko must answer for the torture and dead”.

At a war memorial where the march was to culminate, an AFP journalist estimated that up to 100,000 people had gathered.