Belarus engulfed in ninth night of protests as Lukashenko heckled
Alexander Lukashenko

Demonstrators descended on the Belarusian capital on Monday for a ninth night of protests against strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who was heckled by factory workers as pressure grows on him to step down.

Several thousand protesters gathered at Independence Square in central Minsk, waving the red-and-white flag of the opposition, chanting “Leave” and calling on the ex-Soviet country’s authoritarian leader to resign.

Demonstrators also marched to detention centres demanding the release of opposition leaders and protesters arrested during rallies against the results of a presidential election on August 9 that Lukashenko claims to have won with 80 percent of the vote.

Employees at several factories and state television earlier walked off the job after the biggest opposition rallies in Lukashenko’s 26 years in power on Sunday.

More than 100,000 people took part in a “March for Freedom” following calls for continued demonstrations from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who stood against Lukashenko on August 9 and claims she won the election.

While European Union leaders are to hold an emergency video summit on Belarus on Wednesday, President Donald Trump said the United States was following events “very closely”, describing it as a “terrible situation”.

However, Russia, the most powerful ally of Lukashenko, has said it is ready to step in if necessary.

– ‘Fighting their own people’ –

A police crackdown that has seen thousands arrested and widespread allegations of brutality appears to have turned even Lukashenko’s support base at state-owned industries against him.

In footage widely shared on social media, workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT) interrupted Lukashenko with shouts of “Leave!” as he tried to give a speech on Monday.

An angry Lukashenko, who had earlier told the workers he would not give in to calls for new elections, walked off the stage, saying: “Thank you, I have said everything. You can shout ‘Leave’.”

In a video recording of the speech, Lukashenko can be heard saying: “Until you kill me, there will be no elections.”

Yet later he suggested that he may be willing to hand over power following a referendum on the constitution.

“You should get it approved in a referendum and then, using that new constitution, if you want, hold both parliamentary or presidential elections,” he said.

Hundreds of workers and protesters had gathered outside the plant to demand his resignation.

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“We plan to participate in all peaceful strikes, in all peaceful protest actions… so that the government will finally realise they are fighting with their own people,” Ilya Rybkin, a 30-year-old road worker, told AFP outside the plant.

Demonstrators also gathered outside the Minsk headquarters of state television, where local media reported that 600 people joined the strike.

Maria Kolesnikova, a senior opposition leader, joined the protesters, saying: “I know how scared you are, because we are all scared. Thank you for overcoming your fear and joining the majority.”

Production at the Belaruskali potash producer was partially suspended after workers joined the walkout, Russian news agencies reported.

Potash, used to make fertiliser, is a major source of income for Belarus, which is one of the largest producers in the world.

– Challenger ‘ready’ to lead –

Lukashenko has defied calls to stand down after the election that saw him imprison his closest rivals, shun independent observers and unleash a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.

The opposition called for a general strike after hundreds of workers at state-run factories first downed tools last week.

In a video posted online on Monday, Tikhanovskaya — now in exile in Lithuania — said that although she never planned to enter politics she was prepared to temporarily take over the leadership.

“Fate decreed that I’d find myself on the frontline of a confrontation against arbitrary rule and injustice,” said Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran for president only after other potential candidates including her husband were jailed.

“I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period.”

Tikhanovskaya, who says she will organise new elections if Lukashenko steps down, has demanded the release of all detainees and criminal cases be opened against those who ordered the crackdown.

More than 6,700 people arrested, hundreds wounded and two people have died in the crackdown.

Belarusian health care workers in a statement on Monday vowed to treat everyone regardless of the political stance and appealed to officials to allow access to injured protesters in detention.

Detainees have gradually been released, many emerging with horrific accounts of beatings and torture.

[AFP]

Vanguard News Nigeria.

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