KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) — Thousands of protesters in Belarus swarmed the streets of the capital to demand the resignation of the country’s long-time President for the 13th straight on Sunday and encountered police using stun grenades to break up the crowds and making warning shots in the air from what authorities said were “non-lethal weapons”.
Up to 20,000 people took part in the rally, the Visana human rights centre estimated. Large crowds of people gathered in the eastern part of Minsk headed toward Kurapaty, a wooded area on the city’s outskirts where over 200,000 people were executed by Soviet secret police during Stalinist-era purges.
The crowds directed chants of “Go away!” at Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who won his sixth term in an August 9 election that is widely seen as rigged. Lukashenko’s crushing victory over his popular, inexperienced challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has triggered the largest and the most sustained wave of mass protests of his 26 years in power.
The 66-year-old former state farm director has relentlessly suppressed opposition and independent media in Belarus but struggled to quell the recent unrest. Large protest crowds have assembled in the streets of Minsk and other cities almost daily, despite police countering the demonstrations with water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets and mass detentions.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry threatened to use firearms against the rally-goers “if need be”. On Sunday, police acknowledged officers fired several warning shots into the air during the demonstration in Minsk “to prevent violations of the law”, but maintained that “non-lethal weapons” were used.