A massive crowd of protesters gathered in Minsk on Sunday, answering an opposition call for President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation and defying the Belarusian strongman’s warning that “stringent measures” would be employed to “defend” the country.
Waving red-and-white opposition flags, protesters chanted "Freedom" as a sea of people, exceeding tens of thousands, according to initial estimates, made their way to Independence Square in the heart of the Belarusian capital.
“Minsk never has seen such crowds in its history,” said an independent journalist in Minsk in a Twitter post that included photographs of a packed Independence Square.
Authorities issued a warning to Belarusians against participating in "illegal demonstrations" and local news outlets published videos on social media showing water cannon and riot police with shields moving towards Independence Square.
Huge nationwide demonstrations that erupted after the country's disputed August 9 election have presented the biggest challenge yet to Lukashenko's 26-year-old rule and tested the loyalty of his security forces.
Protesters on Sunday marched towards Lukashenko's residence at the Independence Palace, on the northern edge of the capital, the majority gathering at some distance, while a smaller group approached the building, a Reuters witness said.
A helicopter was seen flying out of the residence as protesters milled below, some chanting "coward" as it passed above, apparently referring to Lukashenko, according to the witness. After a while, most of the protesters began to march back towards the city centre.
Video from Belarus on Sunday showed the beleaguered president carrying a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest as he got off a helicopter that brought him to his working residence amid the 15th straight day of protests. The video was released on the Telegram messaging app on a channel that other media identified as being close to Lukashenko’s press service.
Lukashenko warns of border threats
Protesters gathered despite an ominous warning by Lukashenko on Saturday that he has ordered his defence minister to take "stringent measures" to defend the country's territorial integrity.
"It involves taking the most stringent measures to protect the territorial integrity of our country," he said.
The 65-year-old Belarusian strongman, who said he won a sixth presidential term with 80 percent of the vote in the August 9 ballot, made the comments while inspecting military units in Grodno, near Belarus's border with Poland, according to the president's press service.
The former collective farm director said that NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania were "seriously stirring" near their borders with Belarus and ordered his troops into full combat readiness.
NATO said the claims were "baseless".
"As we have already made clear, NATO poses no threat to Belarus or any other country and has no military buildup in the region," it said in a statement.
Both countries also denied the accusation.
"The regime is trying to divert attention from Belarus's internal problems at any cost with totally baseless statements about imaginary external threats," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told AFP.
The Polish president's chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski, for his part dismissed the claim that Poland planned to violate Belarusian territorial integrity as "regime propaganda", calling it "sad and surprising".
"Poland... has no such intention," he told the Polish news agency PAP.
'We are not afraid'
Lithuania's foreign ministry announced that US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun will visit Vilnius and Russia next week for talks on Belarus and the elections fallout.
He is notably planning to meet with Lukashenko's election challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, where she is now in exile, her representatives told AFP.
Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after the disputed ballot in which she claims victory, said Saturday "We are not afraid."
"I am so proud of Belarusians now because after 26 years of fear they are ready to defend their rights," she told AFP.
"I call them to continue, not to stop, because it's really important now to continue to be united in the struggle for the rights."
EU threatens sanctions
The EU last week rejected Lukashenko's re-election and vowed to levy sanctions against what it said was a substantial number of people responsible for rigging the vote and cracking down on protests.
The Belarusian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the opposition's Coordination Council, whose members are seeking new elections and a peaceful transition of power.
Lukashenko has rejected the idea of holding another ballot, dismissed calls to resign and accused the opposition of attempting to seize power.
On Friday he vowed to "solve the problem" of the protest movement.
Tikhanovskaya said this week that Belarusians would "never accept the current leadership again" after the crackdown on post-election protests.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)