Tens of thousands of people rallied in the Belarus capital Sunday and called for President Alexander Lukashenko to resign after disputed election results, a postelection crackdown, and a heavy military presence in the city.
Protesters, many wearing and waving the opposition’s colors of red and white, chanted “freedom” and “we will not forget, we will not forgive” as they walked in the Minsk city center. They briefly gathered near the president’s residence before dispersing peacefully.
While state media reported about 20,000 protesters took part, opposition-leaning media put the estimate at nearly 100,000 protesters, the French news agency reported.
The demonstrations began after the Aug. 9 election, in which Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote. The results drew claims of fraud by opposition parties.
IT company director Yan Tamulyonok told the Associated Press he has been going to the protests each day to demand fair elections and freedom of speech. He said he believed the vote was rigged by the law-enforcement agencies and security services, who then violently dispersed protests.
The protests are seen as the biggest challenge Lukashenko has faced since he began to rule the Eastern European country of 9.5 million 26 years ago.
Lukashenko, seen on state media Sunday wearing body armor and carrying a rifle, called demonstrators “rats.”
Previously, he has used riot police to disperse rallies, but Reuters witnessed no clashes between police and protesters Sunday.
However, in the 15 days of protests, more than 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds beaten by police. Two people were killed in the postelection protests in Belarus, it has been confirmed.
The EU and United States have criticized the vote and condemned the postelection crackdown.
Ahead of Sunday’s rally, the Defense Ministry announced the army would take responsibility for protecting national memorials from protesters.
In a statement, the ministry said any unrest near such monuments and statues would no longer be responded to by police forces but by the army.
The statement came as army personnel were spotted being transported into Minsk in military transporters.
Thirty-one years ago, on August 23, 1989, an estimated 2 million people joined arms across the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in a protest against Soviet rule that became known as the “Baltic Way.” Protesters formed a 600-kilometer-long human chain from Vilnius, Lithuania, to the Belarusian border. Two years later, the Baltic states would achieve their freedom.
On Sunday, mass protests were held in Lithuania and Latvia, and were scheduled to occur in Estonia and Prague, as a show of support for Belarus across the Baltics.
Organizers in Lithuania Sunday estimated up to 50,000 people took part in their rally. In Latvia, hundreds marched along the Belarus border, the French news agency reported. Elsewhere, human chains were planned in Estonia and Prague.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition candidate who fled to Lithuania after the election and claimed to have won from 60 to 70% of the vote, said Saturday that Belarusians must “struggle for their rights” and not be distracted by Lukashenko’s claims that the country was under military threat.
Also, it was announced Saturday that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun will visit Lithuania and Russia next week for talks on the Belarusian postelection crisis.
Tsikhanouskaya’s team said Saturday that Biegun would meet the opposition candidate in Lithuania.
RFE/RL contribute to this report.