MINSK – Police in Belarus dispersed protesters who gathered on the capital’s central square Wednesday, detaining dozens in an effort to end weeks of demonstrations challenging the re-election of the country’s authoritarian ruler.
The crackdown in Independence Square on Wednesday came on the 18th straight day of protests pushing for the resignation of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian leader who has ruled the nation of 9.5 million for 26 years has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and refused to engage in dialogue with the opposition contesting his Aug. 9 re-election to a sixth term.
After a brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the first days of post-election protests, which caused international outrage and helped swell protesters’ numbers, the authorities changed tactics and let daily demonstrations go unhindered for nearly two weeks. The government, meanwhile, has maintained pressure on the opposition with threats and selective jailing of its leaders.
Wednesday's police action marks the return to force, albeit on a much smaller scale compared to the post-election crackdown, when nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured and at least three protesters died.
Shortly after several hundred protesters gathered on the Independence Square for an evening protest that has become a daily occurrence, waving their red-and-white flags and chanting “Go away!” to push for Lukashenko’s resignation, police trucks pulled in.
Officers grabbed demonstrators and dragged them into trucks, tearing away their flags and placards.
Several dozen protesters found refuge in a Catholic church facing the square, and police blocked its doors to keep them inside while they moved to disperse the demonstration.
Minsk Bishop Jury Kasabucki condemned the police action as a violation of freedom of conscience and religion and an insult to believers.
“It’s a clear act of intimidation,” said Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna rights center. “The authorities have stopped beatings, but fear and threats remain their main weapon.”
He said that police on Wednesday also detained protesters in another district of Minsk and in the city of Brest on the border with Poland.
As part of a multi-pronged effort to stifle protest, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, was summoned for questioning earlier Wednesday over her role in an opposition council created to facilitate talks on a transition of power.
Prosecutors have opened a criminal probe against the Coordinating Council members, accusing them of undermining the country’s security.
Alexievich insisted that she and other council members have done nothing wrong.
“Our goal is to unite society and help overcome a political crisis,” she told reporters. “We must win with our spirit and the strength of our beliefs.”
On Tuesday, two other council members were handed 10-day jail terms for organizing unsanctioned protests, and several others were called for questioning.
The United States and the European Union have criticized the Belarusian vote as neither free nor fair and urged Lukashenko's government to engage in a dialogue with the opposition.
Ahead of a two-day EU foreign ministers’ meeting starting Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “it’s absolutely unacceptable that members of the Coordinating Council are arrested, interrogated and intimidated.”
“With the daily increasing repression against peaceful protesters the leadership in Minsk is increasingly sidelining itself,” said Maas, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation bloc. “We won’t let serious human rights abuses and breaches of fundamental democratic principles go unanswered.”
Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, has dismissed protesters as Western puppets and rejected offers of mediation from the EU. In a show of defiance on Sunday, the 65-year-old embattled leader toted an assault rifle as he arrived at his residence by helicopter, while protesters rallied nearby.
After a sweeping crackdown in the first days after the vote, Lukashenko has switched tactics and sought to quell the unrest gradually, with vague promises of reforms mixed with threats, court summonses and selective arrests.
Starting Monday, police began rounding up dozens of demonstrators each day across the country, but Wednesday's crackdown on Independence Square marked a clear escalation, signaling the authorities' determination to see an end to the demonstrations.
Earlier Wednesday, hundreds of demonstrators formed “chains of solidarity” in Minsk to push for a new election.
“Lukashenko has switched his tactics, he thinks that selective repression will weaken the protest,” said 45-year-old IT expert Natalya Pustovol, who joined the protest. “But the public mood has changed and people want his resignation and changes.”
A wave of strikes at industrial plants across the country has posed an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base in the past.
The authorities have tried to end the strikes by pressuring workers and detaining the organizers.
Alexander Lavrinovich, the head of the strike organizing committee at the Minsk Wheeled Tow Truck Plant, was handed a 10-day jail sentence Wednesday on charges of organizing an unsanctioned protest.
In Zhodino, a city about 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) northeast of Minsk, several hundred striking workers from another major unit, the Belarusian Automobile Plant that manufactures heavy trucks, rallied to demand Lukashenko's resignation and a new election.
“They are blackmailing workers with layoffs and repression, they are using dirty methods in a bid to stifle the protest,” said Alexander Yaroshuk, a union leader.
In a bid to secure support from Russia, which has a union agreement with Belarus and sees it as a key bulwark against Western expansion, Lukashenko has accused NATO of harboring aggressive plans and beefing up its forces in neighboring Poland and Lithuania.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed Lukashenko's claims as an excuse to suppress protests.
“We see attempts to use NATO as a kind of excuse for cracking down on demonstrators ... in Belarus, which is absolutely wrong because there is no military build-up by NATO in the region,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Berlin.
Amid the Western criticism, Russia and China have stood by Lukashenko and warned against foreign interference.
“We believe that under the leadership of President Lukashenko, Belarus will restore political stability and social peace,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, adding that Beijing "firmly opposes interference in Belarus’ internal affairs by external forces.”
Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed.