Hundreds of soldiers blocked off the center of Minsk, deploying water cannons and armored personnel carriers and erecting barbed-wire barriers. Protests also took place in several other cities, including Brest and Grodno. The crowd in Minsk included about 100,000 people, said Ales Bialiatski, head of the Viasna human rights organization. He said dozens of demonstrators were arrested in Minsk and Grodno.
Sunday’s protest comes after about 2,000 demonstrators, mostly women, marched through the streets of Minsk on Saturday. Hundreds, including Nina Bahinskaya, a 73-year-old great-grandmother who has become an icon of the protest movement, were detained and ushered into filled police vans, the BBC reported. Bahinskaya was taken to a police station but was later released.
Protests began Aug. 9 after an election that official results say gave President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office; opponents and some poll workers say the results were manipulated.
Lukashenko, who has repressed opposition and independent news media during 26 years in power, has rejected suggestions of dialogue with the protesters. Many members of the Coordination Council formed by the opposition to push for a transition of power have been arrested or have fled the country.
The Minsk demonstrators on Sunday carried the red-and-white flags that were independent Belarus’ national standard before being replaced in 1995, early in Lukashenko’s tenure. Some bore placards depicting Lukashenko as a mustachioed cockroach.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s foreign minister on Friday warned Russia against interfering with Belarus’ sovereignty amid the civil unrest.
“It is heartbreaking to watch the footage of our close neighbors viciously beaten down and arbitrarily detained on the streets of their native cities,” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told the U.N. Human Rights Council. “We warn the Russian Federation against taking steps that may lead to undermining political sovereignty of Belarus and thus destabilizing the wider region.”
Wendy Morton, the U.K.’s junior foreign minister, also called on foreign powers to enact sanctions against Belarusian authorities responsible for “fraudulent elections,” Reuters reported.
Although protests have taken place daily since the election, the Sunday gatherings in Minsk have been by far the largest, attracting crowds of as many as 200,000 people.
“Every Sunday, you are showing yourselves and the world that the Belarusian people are the power,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was Lukashenko’s main election opponent, said in a video message from Lithuania, where she is in exile.
The marchers also carried portraits of Maria Kolesnikova, a top opposition figure who has been jailed for two weeks and is facing charges of undermining state security that could bring a five-year prison term. Kolesnikova has said security forces drove her to the border with Ukraine to try to make her leave the country, but that she tore up her passport so she couldn’t cross the border.
In a statement relayed by her lawyer on Sunday, Kolesnikova urged protesters to continue.
“Freedom is worth fighting for. Do not be afraid to be free,” she said. “I do not regret anything and would do the same again.”
Also Sunday, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said an investigation has been opened into the release by hackers of the personal information of more than 1,000 employees of the ministry, which runs the police forces.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.