Riot police fired warning shots into the air, used stun grenades and made arrests to deter tens of thousands of Belarusians who marched through Minsk to demand veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko leave power.
Huge demonstrations have taken place in the capital for 12 straight weeks since a disputed election, ratcheting up pressure on the embattled leader of 26 years who has clung to power and said he has no intention of quitting.
Fundamental opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya denounced the vote as a fraud and has been backed by Western leaders who refuse to recognize the result.
Despite Lukashenko’s most recent threat to “take no prisoners”, protesters began walking from central Minsk to a site of Stalin-period executions just outside the capital on Sunday.
An AFP journalist at the scene heard loud bangs and the sound of shots being fired, and witnesses said police fired in the air in an apparent attempt to stop the protesters.
It was indistinct what sort of weapons were being used.
“The situation is really disturbing and everyone’s mood is tense,” one protester who requested anonymity told Reuters by phone on Sunday.
“Police buses and equipment are constantly driving past the column. It seems like people are ready for any sort of escalation.”
The Vesna-96 rights group published the names of 45 people who had been arrested.
“People got to a field close to Kurapaty, (police) buses pulled up and chased after people at top speed, then they started throwing (stun) grenades. What’s more, they were throwing them into the thick of the crowd,” the witness said by phone on condition of anonymity.
“A lot of people have been detained. It all happened in an open field, so there was nowhere to run,” the witness said.
Videos circulated on social media showed that, in a break from previous protests, authorities deployed armored all-terrain vehicles with roof-mounted machine guns in Minsk.
Interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told AFP that a number of people had been detained but denied that police used stun grenades and other riot-control equipment against demonstrators.
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