Belarus: Lukashenko brandishes rifle as thousands of protesters demand his resignation
The authoritarian president of Belarus made a dramatic show of defiance on Sunday against the massive protests demanding his resignation, toting a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest as he strode off a helicopter that landed at his residence while demonstrators massed nearby.
An estimated 200,000 pro-democracy protesters returned to the streets of Minsk on Sunday to demand the resignation of Alexander Lukashenko in the latest wave of demonstrations against his disputed re-election two weeks ago.
Draped in red and white flags, opposition supporters gathered in Independence Square, as riot police are on standby on the autocratic leader's orders.
Officials issued a warning to Belarusians against participating in "illegal demonstrations".
Video from the state news agency Belta showed a government helicopter landing on the grounds of the presidential palace and Lukashenko getting off holding what appeared to be a Kalashnikov-type automatic rifle. No ammunition clip was visible in the weapon, suggesting that Lukashenko, who cultivates an aura of machismo, aimed only to make a show of aggression.
A Dailyrater journalist said many protesters have brought balloons and the loud bang from them popping has everyone on edge as recent protests have been met with a crackdown, which saw at least four people killed.
Protesters held a moment of silence for the victims. But authorities used loudspeakers during that moment to announce: "The demonstration is illegal. Go home."
Opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova told protesters to avoid police.
"We are peaceful. That is why we are going to the other side (away from police), " she told Dailyrater.
Asked if the demonstrations would amount to change in Belarus, she answered that "there already has been."
Etched in the protesters' minds are scenes from last weekend's protests where thousands were detained and reportedly injured in police clashes.
Human rights groups have also voiced concern over allegations that hundreds of others were beaten or injured in prison.
'Scared to be here'
"We hope that it sends a signal to everyone that we are peaceful. Maybe, it is stupid, but this might be our last chance to protest,” Dima, a 30-year-old male at the protest told Dailyrater, who did not want to give his full name due to security fears.
“We have also had enough and want things to change. We are scared to be here, but we want to support everyone. We need to do this,” his wife Victoria chimed in.
Protests have swelled since President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed to have received 80 percent of the vote in the August 9 presidential election.
Opponents have organised strikes and mass protests, with over 100,000 in attendance last weekend.
Few workers at state-run factories have continued to strike due to government pressure.
But others are more adamant.
"The strikes will continue. We had some difficulties, but they will continue. Look at all the people here! How can they not continue," Sergei Dylevsky, who is leading the strikes at the Minsk Tractor Factory and who is part of the opposition told Dailyrater.
Staff have also walked out at state-run media outlets and the President said Russian journalists were replacing them.
"We are only told lies on state TV," Luka, a protester who was carrying a TV depicting the Belarusian president told Dailyrater.
"Old people are only watching this, and I want to show them what they are really watching. We need to show people, that they are not watching the truth."
Avoiding a 'second Ukraine'
The EU has rejected the results of the election and has vowed to sanction Belarusians responsible for ballot fraud.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell warned that Belarus should not be allowed to become a "second Ukraine".
65-year-old Lukashenko has rejected calls to stand down.
On Saturday he hinted that NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania were "seriously stirring" near Belarus' borders and ordered his troops into full combat readiness.
NATO dismissed the claims as baseless.
Belarus's opposition leader, 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled to Vilnius fearing reprisals for mounting the greatest challenge to Lukashenko and claiming election victory.
She told AFP she plans to meet with the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun when he visits Lithuania next week.