Demonstrators massed in central Minsk on Sunday after opposition leaders called for a huge rally to demand the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the latest in a wave of protests over his disputed re-election.
Alexander Lukashenko has dispatched the notorious riot police to disperse spontaneous rallies that erupted after he claimed a sixth presidential term in an election two weeks ago that critics say was rigged.
Thousands of demonstrators draped in red-and-white flags of the opposition flooded Independence Square in Minsk as a group of women protested against police violence ahead of the opposition's "March of New Belarus" on Saturday.
"We have just two demands: fair elections and stop the violence," 32-year-old Igor told AFP.
Officials 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.
Reacting to earlier demonstrations, Lukashenko, talking in a video conference with the Belarus Security Council, said that “the social and political situation in the country remains tense despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the country continues working ... threats against families of servicemen, police officers, special services, government officials, and journalists continue, which is a matter of major concern. "
Solidarity rallies were also due in neighbouring Lithuania, where demonstrators planned to form a human chain from Vilnius to the Belarus border, three decades after residents of the Baltic states joined hands and linked their capital cities in a mass protest against Soviet rule.
The unlikely leader of Belarus's opposition, 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled to Vilnius after the polls, fearing reprisals for mounting the greatest challenge to Lukashenko and claiming election victory.
In an interview with AFP ahead of the demonstrations, she urged protesters to continue to exert pressure on the authorities, saying it was "important to continue to be united in the struggle for the rights".
The authorities have to understand "we are not a protest movement... we are a majority and we will not step away. We are not afraid of them any more."
Lukashenko's opponents have organised strikes and the largest protests in the ex-Soviet country's recent history over his re-election, with more than 100,000 people turning out in Minsk alone last weekend.
No second Ukraine
Meanwhile, the European Union has rejected the results of the election and has vowed to sanction those responsible for ballot fraud and a police crackdown that saw nearly 7,000 people arrested and sparked gruesome allegations of torture and abuse in police custody.
The man branded "Europe's last dictator" has brushed aside the calls to go, dismissed the possibility of holding a new vote and instructed his security services to quell unrest and secure the borders.
His judiciary opened a criminal investigation into the opposition's Coordination Council that is seeking new elections and the peaceful transition of power, after he said opponents wanted to "seize power".
Lukashenko ordered the military into full combat readiness during an army inspection on Saturday near the border with the EU and warned about NATO troop "stirrings" in Europe.
"The fatherland is now in danger. We cannot joke," Lukashenko said.
Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda said Lukashenko was trying to "divert attention" from unrest at home, while NATO dismissed the claims as baseless.