This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians streamed into the center of the capital to demand Alyaksandr Lukashenka step down as the defiant, longtime authoritarian ruler turned 66.
Waving banned red-and-white flags that have long been a symbol of opposition to Lukashenka’s rule, the protesters marched toward Minsk’s Independence Square on August 30, ignoring an earlier Interior Ministry call not to assemble.
They chanted, “Happy birthday, rat” and “Leave” as they gathered outside the presidential palace where Lukashenka is currently staying. Many carried anti-Lukashenka signs, while one group carried a black coffin. Lukashenka last week described the protesters as “rats.”
The BelaPAN news agency put the number of protesters in Minsk at more than 100,000.
Riot police blocked the crowds from advancing in several areas of the city and detained at least 125 protesters near Independence Square and elsewhere, according to the Interior Ministry.
Several armored vehicles were brought into Minsk and parked near the presidential residency “to strengthen the security of personnel,” the Interior Ministry said.
Lukashenka has shown no intention of negotiating with the protesters, who he claims are influenced by outside forces.
Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti posted a photograph of Lukashenka carrying an automatic weapon inside the palace grounds earlier in the day. RIA Novosti said the photograph was sent by Lukashenka’s press secretary.
It is the second time since the protests began that Lukashenka has released photos of himself armed with heavy guns.
Belarus has been rocked by three weeks of protests and strikes after the nation’s election commission claimed Lukashenka won a new six-year term in a landslide victory.
The opposition claimed the election was marred by irregularities and rigged in Lukashenka’s favor.
Belarusian presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya attracted tens of thousands of supporters to her rallies across the country in the run-up to election day, underscoring the growing disillusion with Lukashenka’s Soviet-style rule.
However, the election committee claimed Tskihanouskaya won only about 10 percent of the vote to Lukashenka’s 80 percent, angering voters and pushing them to take to the streets.
Unlike in the past, mass arrests and police torture in the days following the election failed to stem the protests, raising questions about whether Lukashenka can hold on to power.
Thousands of people, mainly women, took to the streets on August 29 to protest Lukashenka’s rule and tried to break through a line of riot police.
Tsikhanouskaya told the European Parliament that at least six people have been killed in the crackdown and dozens of protesters have gone missing after being detained by authorities.
Ahead of the planned August 30 protest, the Interior Ministry warned citizens not to take part in the unauthorized rally, a call that was widely ignored.
In an attempt to stifle global coverage of the protests, the Belarusian authorities days earlier stripped accreditation from at least 17 journalists representing major foreign news organizations, including RFE/RL.
The West has condemned the vote and the harsh police crackdown on opposition protesters, forcing Lukashenka to look to Moscow for support.
The Kremlin announced on August 30 that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka plan to hold face-to-face talks in Moscow in the coming weeks.
Putin also congratulated Lukashenka on his birthday during a phone call. The two leaders have spoken by phone several times since the protests began.
Both sides reaffirmed their intention to strengthen and expand their neighborly alliance, according to the Kremlin’s readout of the call.