At least 100,000 Belarusian anti-government protesters flooded the centre of Minsk on Sunday, a Reuters eyewitness said, while police detained around 250 people, the Russian Interfax news agency said, citing the Interior Ministry. Opposition figures called this new mass demonstration on the eve of crunch talks between President Alexander Lukashenko and his main ally, Russia's Vladimir Putin.
As public anger continued to build against Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet nation for 26 years, Moscow offered him support by saying it would send paratroopers to Belarus for "Slavic Brotherhood" joint drills.
A wave of protests has swept Belarus since the August 9 presidential elections, which demonstrators say was actually won by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Key opposition figures have since either been jailed or fled the country, with Tsikhanouskaya now in Lithuania.
Lukashenko denies the election was rigged and has said foreign powers are behind the protests.
A vast of column protesters marched through the capital Minsk towards a government district on Sunday, chanting "long live Belarus" and "you're a rat," a taunt that has frequently been used against Lukashenko during demonstrations.
They came to a halt and chanted "fascists" as hundreds of riot police with shields blocked off the road. Meanwhile, in the city of Brest, police used water cannons on protesters, according to the Nexta Live channel.
The atmosphere was tense, with a large police presence in parts of the capital, and some central areas sealed off with barbed wire, including Oktyabrskaya Square and Independence Square, common focus points of the anti-Lukashenko protests.
'We won't let him sell the country'
On its websites and social media channels, the opposition announced the slogan "We won't let him sell the country" ahead of Lukashenko's first face-to-face meeting with Putin since protests began, which is set to take place on Monday.
Analysts say Putin may seek to exploit Lukashenko's political vulnerability to wring concessions from him, but any agreements compromising Belarus's sovereignty and independence are likely to enrage Belarusian protesters further.
After a massive protest last Sunday, Maria Kolesnikova, one of three prominent women opposition figures, was jailed after she resisted expulsion and tore up her passport.
More than 600 people were detained last Sunday in one of the largest waves of arrests since the early days of the demonstrations.
Seeking to intimidate protesters further, men in civilian clothes with batons chased and beat up demonstrators as crowds gradually dispersed last Sunday.
Masked riot police on Saturday violently detained several dozen women demonstrators and threw them into vans during a smaller protest in Minsk.
Ahead of September 13 protests, Tikhanovskaya paid tribute to all those who planned to take to the streets for the demonstrations. "Over the past month we have become a truly heroic people," she said in a video address.
"We are continuing our fight for freedom," said the 38-year-old former housewife, who has fled into exile in neighbouring EU member state Lithuania.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)