By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) – Masked police dragged people into vans and fired stun grenades and tear gas to disperse crowds as tens of thousands marched for a seventh straight weekend to demand veteran Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko quit.
Protesters chanted “impostor” and “Sveta is our president” as they marched through Minsk and other cities decked out in red-and-white opposition colours. At least 53 people were detained, human rights activists said.
Some dubbed the protest a “people’s inauguration” of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main opponent who fled into exile after the Aug. 9 election that Lukashenko’s opponents say was blatantly rigged to hand Lukashenko a sixth term.
Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and was inaugurated on Wednesday in a ceremony held without any prior announcement, sparking more protests and condemnation from the European Union, the United States and Britain.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in comments in the French press Lukashenko must step aside.
“We are witnessing a power crisis in Belarus with an authoritarian administration that is not able to accept the logic of democracy,” Macron told le Journal du Dimanche in comments published on Sunday.
“It is clear that Lukashenko must go.”
Russia said the EU’s decision not to recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president contradicted international law and amounted to indirect meddling in the country.
Buoyed by support from traditional ally Russia, the 66-year-old Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager who has been in power for over a quarter of a century, shows no inclination to resign.
Riot police pulled people out of crowds and hauled them away into vans, a Reuters witness said. Several metro stations were shut and the mobile internet disrupted. Some protesters wore fake crowns to mock Lukashenko’s inauguration.
“We came to celebrate the people’s inauguration of the people’s president,” said Alexander, a 30-year-old logistics worker, while protesting in Minsk. “First he falsified the elections, and then he falsified the inauguration.”
Police said they used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse “disobedient” protesters in the eastern city of Gomel, the Russian agency TASS reported.
Local media footage showed masked security forces spraying a substance from a can into the faces of people in Gomel, while the protesters retreated shouting “fascists”.
The Belarusian government typically releases the data for the total number of people arrested on the day after a protest.
The Russian news agency Interfax said at least ten people had been detained at the start of Sunday’s protest.
Police detained 150 people during protests on Saturday, the interior ministry said.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei on Saturday accused western countries preparing to impose new sanctions on Minsk of attempting to sow “chaos and anarchy”.
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