Belarusian authorities have detained three leading opposition activists who have helped spearhead a wave of protests demanding the resignation of the country’s authoritarian ruler.
The opposition’s Co-ordination Council said its members Sergei Dylevsky and Olga Kovalkova were detained by police in the capital, Minsk. Later in the day, the opposition also reported the detention of Alexander Lavrinovich, the leader of striking workers at a major industrial plant.
The move signals President Alexander Lukashenko’s determination to stifle the massive demonstrations that have entered their third week. It comes a day after the 65-year-old Belarusian leader toted an assault rifle in a show of force as he arrived at his residence by helicopter as protesters rallied nearby.
Last week, Mr Lukashenko warned the council created to negotiate a transition of power that it could face criminal accusations for creating what he described as a parallel government. The Belarusian prosecutors then opened a criminal inquiry into the council members on charges of undermining national security. These claims were rejected by the council’s members.
The detention of opposition activists follows Sunday’s demonstration in Minsk that drew an estimated 200,000 people pushing for Mr Lukashenko to step down following the election on August 9, which the opposition saw as rigged. The previous Sunday saw a similar number of demonstrators, which is the largest ever in the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million people.
Video showed Mr Lukashenko getting off his helicopter with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. No ammunition clip was visible in the weapon, suggesting that Mr Lukashenko aimed only to make a show of aggression.
He thanked riot police who encircled the residence to safeguard it. “We will deal with them,” Mr Lukashenko said about the demonstrators.
The protests were galvanised by a brutal post-election crackdown, which saw nearly 7,000 people detained and hundreds injured after police dispersed peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs.
As crowds of protesters swelled amid public outrage, the authorities backed off and let demonstrations go unhindered. However, authorities have beefed up police cordons around the city since last week and threatened opposition activists with criminal charges.
The demonstrators approached the edges of the presidential residence grounds, but stopped after encountering lines of police in full riot gear and dispersed shortly after.