Rival protests took place across Belarus on Sunday as tensions over last weekend’s disputed presidential election continued to mount and Russia pledged support for incumbent Alexander Lukashenko.
Thousands gathered in a square near Belarus’ main government building in the capital, Minsk, for a rally to support Lukashenko, who is facing his biggest challenge since taking power 26 years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union.
He moved to declare election victory last Sunday with 80 percent of the vote over opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, which has prompted protests across the country every day since. Opponents say the election was rigged to disguise the fact that he has lost public support.
A least two protesters have been killed and thousands have been detained, although some were released on Friday. Dozens of protesters and police officers have been injured.
There have been widespread allegations of torture and beating as those who were detained started telling their stories,further exacerbating public anger toward the government.
In front of his own supporters on Sunday — many chanting his nickname “Batka,” or father — Lukashenko delivered a long and rambling speech that saw him claim that the opposition was being manipulated by foreign powers.
“If we go along with them, we will die as a country, as a people, as a nation,” he said.
The man dubbed Europe’s “last dictator” has the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told Lukashenko that Russia was ready to assist Belarus in accordance with a collective security treaty if necessary, according to a statement from the Kremlin on Sunday.
It also said external pressure was being applied to Belarus, although it did not specify from where.
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Lukashenko and Putin have spoken twice this weekend.
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This support did not deter tens of thousands who want Lukashenko to quit from organizing their own “March of Freedom” in Minsk and other cities across the country. Some predicted it could become the largest demonstration Belarus has ever seen.
Many were wearing white, and carrying white and red balloons, a nod to the old Belarusian flag. Crowds shouted “Live Belarus” and “Leave,” their chants aimed at Lukashenko.
Maria Kolesnikova, one of Tsikhanouskaya’s aides who stayed in Minsk, addressed the rally, urging for the president to quit.
“We are a majority. We are together,” she said, calling those behind the violent crackdown to be held accountable. “Twenty six years of horror must end,” she said referring to Lukashenko’s time in power.
Ahead of the demonstration, Tsikhanouskaya, who emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to take her husband’s place in the election campaign after he was jailed, called for peaceful protests in a video message posted online on Friday.
After fleeing to neighboring Lithuania earlier this week, she has also called for the formation a national council to facilitate a power transfer.
Heeding her call, demonstrators gathered Saturday in an area where a protester died during the first days of the protests. Some laid flowers in his honor, as passing cars blared their horns.
The crowd also converged outside the state broadcaster BT, denouncing it for not properly covering the protests, Reuters reported. Several staff, including presenters, walked out of the building, saying they had resigned.
They were the latest in a wave of professionals denouncing state crackdowns on protests, amid them the workers at some of the country’s biggest state-run industrial plants, the backbone of Lukashenko’s Soviet-style economic model.
Workers at state-owned manufacturing enterprises began to join the protests on Thursday and labor strikes calling for Lukashenko to step down have spread across the country.
They were joined by thousands of female protesters who have formed “solidarity chains,” many wearing white T-shirts, ribbons and bracelets to represent peace.
Foreign observers and governments have called on Belarusian authorities to stop the crackdown on protesters, with the European Union considering sanctions.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously said the vote was neither free nor fair.
“Our common objective is to support the Belarusian people,” Pompeo said Saturday at a news conference in Warsaw, Poland. “These people are demanding the same things that every human being wants.”
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.