Thousands stage flower protest in Belarus as EU weighs sanctions

Minsk: Protesters formed human chains and marched through the streets of Belarus carrying flowers on Wednesday in anger at a crackdown by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko that has prompted the European Union to consider new sanctions against Minsk.

Security forces have clashed with protesters for three consecutive nights after Lukashenko claimed a landslide re-election victory in a vote on Sunday that his opponents say was rigged. Police have detained around 6000 people.

About 200 women march in solidarity with protesters injured in the latest rallies against the results of the country’s presidential election in Minsk, Belarus.Credit:AP

Lukashenko has sought better relations with the West amid strained relations with traditional ally Russia. Brussels lifted sanctions, imposed over Lukashenko's human rights record, in 2016, but will weigh new measures this week.

Lithuania, Poland and Latvia jointly offered to mediate between Lukashenko and the protesters, and threatened sanctions at a European or national level if the offer was declined.

A former Soviet collective farm manager, the 65-year-old Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century but faces increasing anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a sluggish economy and human rights.

Women dressed in white formed a human chain outside a covered food market in the capital Minsk, holding flowers in the air and chanting slogans, while a crowd also gathered outside a prison where protesters were being kept.

People cover themselves with flags, a symbol of opposition, as they gather in a street protesting the election results in Minsk, Russia.Credit:AP

"The core of all these so-called protesters today comprises people with a criminal history and the unemployed," he said at a government meeting on Wednesday.

Belarusian authorities earlier tied opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's husband to a plot by suspected Russian mercenaries to destabilise the country ahead of the election. She denied the allegation in an interview with Reuters.

In Tuesday night's clashes, security forces beat some of the protesters, sometimes dragging people out of cars before attacking them.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet condemned the detention of 6000 people, "including bystanders, as well as minors, suggesting a trend of massive arrests in clear violation of international human rights standards".

Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya voting at a polling place in Minsk. She has now joined her children in Lithuania after becoming afraid for the family’s safety.Credit:Getty Images

Some of the detainees were lined up in a row on state television this week, looking subdued and promising not to engage in revolutionary activities.

State media also broadcast footage of a van in Minsk with Russian number plates saying it was packed with ammunition and tents.

Tracked down by Reuters, Valdemar Grubov, the van's owner, said he was a film producer and that the vehicle contained only his own personal effects.

Under pressure after a disputed election: Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.Credit:AP

He said he had been unable to retrieve the van due to COVID-19 restrictions and was not involved in any alleged foreign plot.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher who took on Lukashenko in the vote, has fled to neighbouring Lithuania to join her children there. She urged her compatriots not to oppose the police and to avoid putting their lives in danger.

Russian newspaper Moscow Komsomolets quoted a Russian scientist as saying Lukashenko’s children and grandchildren had flown to Turkey.

But the protests continued into the evening on Wednesday as thousands took to the streets of the capital.

"We are scared but what else can we do? We are not being aggressive. We are women standing here who also have a voice," said Minsk resident Zhenya. "We are scared of being arrested but we want to be heard."

Reuters

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