Thousands of protesters in Belarus swarmed the streets of the capital to demand the resignation for the 12th straight Sunday of the country's long-time president and found police firing warning shots into the air and using stun grenades to break up the crowds.
The Visana human rights center estimated that as many as 20,000 people took part in the rally. In the eastern part of Minsk, large crowds of people gathered headed for Kurapaty, a wooded area on the outskirts of the city where over 200,000 people were executed during purges by Soviet secret police in the Stalinist era.
Protesters carried banners reading, "The memory of the people (lasts) longer than a dictatorial life" and "Stop torturing your people!"
The crowds directed the "Go away!" chants. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who won his sixth term in an election on Aug. 9, which is widely considered to be rigged. The crushing victory of Lukashenko over Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, his popular, inexperienced challenger, has caused the largest and most sustained wave of mass protests of his 26 years in power.
The 66-year-old former state farm director, once known as the "Latest Dictator of Europe," has relentlessly suppressed opposition and independent media in Belarus, but has struggled to quench recent unrest. Despite the police countering the demonstrations with water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and mass arrests, large protest crowds have gathered almost daily in the streets of Minsk and other cities.
The Belarusian Ministry of the Interior threatened to use firearms "if necessary" against rally-goers. During the demonstration in Minsk on Sunday, police-recognized officers fired several warning shots into the air "to prevent violations of the law."
For the first time in nearly three months, armored off-road vehicles equipped with machine guns were seen in Minsk, along with water cannon vehicles and other anti-riot equipment. Several metro stations were closed and there was no working mobile internet service.
According to the Viasna center, police detained over 150 people in Minsk and other Belarusian cities where protests were held on Sunday. Among the detainees were several journalists, and many of those detained were beaten, human rights activists said.
"The authorities are trying more tightly to close the lid on the boiling Belarusian pot, but history knows very well what that leads to", said Ales Bialiatski, leader of Viasna.
After he was jailed in May, Tsikhanouskaya entered the presidential race instead of her husband, a popular opposition blogger. She challenged the results of the election in which she secured 10 percent of the vote to 80 percent of the incumbent president, then left Belarus under pressure from the authorities for Lithuania.
In support of the ongoing protests, she issued a statement on Sunday.
"Right now, terror is happening in our country once again," Tsikhanouskaya said. "We have not forgotten our past, nor will we forget what is going on now."
Over 15,000 people have been detained since the presidential election, and more than 100 of them have been declared political prisoners by human rights activists.
All of the prominent members of the Coordination Council of the opposition, which was formed to push for a transition of power, were either imprisoned or forced to leave the country.
Instead of intensifying the crackdown on protesters, Lukashenko scoffed at suggestions for dialogue with the opposition, ordering officials to expel students from universities for participating in demonstrations and to take action against striking plant workers.
The government closed Belarus' borders with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine on Thursday, saying the move was intended to stem the spread of the coronavirus, even though officials had previously accused neighboring countries of attempting to destabilize Belarus.