Belarus opposition protests begin amid heavy police presence

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Women hold hands as they create human chain during a protest in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation’s authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

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(CNN) — Belarus’s embattled government vowed to take control of national monuments to protect them from protesters, as opposition demonstrators gathered in Minsk on Sunday.

“We are strictly warning: In case of disruption of the order and peace in these places — you will have to deal not with the police, but with the Army,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

There was a strong security force presence in the capital city as opposition protesters began arriving at Independence Square, with protesters warned over a loudspeaker to disperse and stop violating public order laws.

It has been two weeks since a contested presidential election saw Alexander Lukashenko retain his 26-year grip on power, sparking mass opposition protests across the country.

Independent observers criticized the country’s August 9 poll for being neither free nor fair. And much of the international community has expressed solidarity with the protesters, piling pressure on Lukashenko to give in to calls for another vote.

But the President has doubled down, even insisting that there won’t be new elections “until you kill me.” Last Sunday, Lukashenko told a rally in central Minsk that Belarus was being threatened by “foreign forces.”

The United Nations said Friday it was “disturbed” that reportedly no action had been taken to investigate reports of “large-scale torture and ill-treatment” of people and children arrested in connection with the protests.

European Council President Charles Michel said two days earlier the European Union would “shortly” impose “sanctions on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud” after an emergency summit of the bloc’s leaders on the “increasingly concerning situation” in the country.

“The protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics. This is in the first place a national crisis. It is about the right of the people to freely elect their leadership. We stand firmly behind the right of Belarusian people to determine their own fate,” Michel said.

“On August 9th, Belarus held elections. These elections were neither free nor fair and did not meet international standards. We don’t recognize the results presented by the Belarus authorities,” Michel said, adding that “the people of Belarus deserve the democratic right to choose their leaders and shape their future.”

Michel also condemned the “shocking and unacceptable” violence against “peaceful protesters.”

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya remains in Lithuania, where she fled to after the disputed presidential election.

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