KYIV/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Sunday called on Belarusians to begin a nationwide strike after police forces loyal to veteran President Alexander Lukashenko fired stun grenades to disperse mass protests.
Tsikhanouskaya had previously set a “People’s Ultimatum” for Lukashenko to resign by Sunday night, promising to call the strike if he did not.
Lukashenko, who has ruled for more than a quarter of a century, has signalled he would ignore the ultimatum.
“The regime once again showed Belarusians that force is the only thing it is capable of,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote in a statement. “That’s why tomorrow, Oct. 26, a national strike will begin.”
It was not immediately clear how many Belarusians would answer her call. But in a show of opposition strength, tens of thousands marched through Minsk and other cities on the 11th straight weekend of mass protests since a disputed election.
Police used stun grenades against protesters they headed towards Independence Palace in the capital.
People carrying the red-and-white flags of the Belarusian opposition movement scattered as loud bangs and flashes lit up the city’s streets after nightfall, videos showed.
Explosions and white smoke filled residential areas as people hid behind vehicles and ran from police, the videos, shared online by news organisations, showed.
Law enforcement confirmed that riot control weapons had been used and detentions had taken place, the Russian news agency RIA reported.
Human rights group Vesna-96 said 216 people had been detained so far on Sunday.
An interior ministry spokeswoman said it was too early to say how many people had been injured or detained. “We will only know by the morning if there are any injured people,” Olga Chemodanova was cited by RIA as saying.
Earlier on Sunday, crowds streamed through the capital shouting “strike”, waving flags and beating drums.
Twelve metro stations were closed, helmeted riot police patrolled the streets and mobile internet services were disrupted in Minsk. Two journalists were detained ahead of the protest, a local journalists’ association said.
Tens of people were detained and security forces used tear gas in the western town of Lida, RIA quoted the regional branch of the interior ministry as saying.
Lukashenko has shown little inclination to quit, buoyed by loans and the offer of military support from traditional ally Russia.
The president’s main opponents have been jailed or fled into exile following the Aug. 9 election, which Lukashenko’s opponents accuse him of rigging to win a sixth straight term. He denies electoral fraud.
Tsikhanouskaya, his main electoral challenger, led the calls for the strike if Lukashenko refused to release all political prisoners and resign to make way for a new election.
The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada have imposed sanctions against a string of senior officials in Belarus accused of fraud and human rights abuses in the wake of the presidential election.
Lukashenko has accused Western countries of meddling in the internal affairs of Belarus and trying to instigate a violent uprising against him.
In a call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday, he said Belarus and Russia were ready to respond jointly to external threats, Belarusian state television reported.
Reporting by Matthias Williams and Polina Ivanova; Editing by Alison Williams, Nick Macfie and Raissa Kasolowsky