MINSK • Tens of thousands of Belarusians staged a peaceful march yesterday, maintaining the pressure on strongman ruler Alexander Lukashenko, who has refused to quit after his disputed re-election and turned to Russia for help to stay in power.
Holding red and white flags and placards, demonstrators - including many students - took to the streets of the capital Minsk despite the authorities mounting a massive show of force and detaining some protesters.
Troops, water cannon, armoured personnel carriers and reconnaissance vehicles were deployed to the city centre ahead of the march and metro stations in Minsk's centre were closed.
Unprecedented protests broke out after Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet state for 26 years, claimed victory in the Aug 9 polls with 80 per cent of the vote.
His opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has said that she won the vote but Mr Lukashenko's security forces have detained thousands of protesters, many of whom accused police of beatings and torture.
Several people have died in the crackdown.
Ms Tikhanovskaya left Belarus under pressure from the authorities and took shelter in Lithuania, a European Union member state.
Belarusians have been demonstrating across the country for nearly a month even though the protest movement lacks a clear leader, with many activists jailed or forced out of the country.
Many citizens say they will keep taking to the streets until Mr Lukashenko, 66, quits.
"Lukashenko must go," Mr Nikolai Dyatlov, a 32-year-old protester, told Agence France-Presse.
"Why is our legitimately elected president located in a different country?" he pointed out, referring to Ms Tikhanovskaya.
More than 100,000 protesters have flooded the streets of Minsk over the past three weekends.
In a short video address ahead of the "March of Unity", Ms Tikhanovskaya, 37, told her supporters: "Remember we are strong as long as we are united."
A political novice, she contested the election after her blogger husband was jailed and barred from running, along with several other prominent Lukashenko critics.
Last Friday, Ms Tikhanovskaya addressed a meeting of the UN Security Council by video link, calling for sanctions against those responsible for the alleged electoral fraud and rights violations.
Although the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have blacklisted Mr Lukashenko and 29 high-ranking officials in his administration, other members of the EU appear reluctant to target the Belarus strongman personally.
Russia has said it will respond to any Western attempts to "sway the situation" and President Vladimir Putin has raised the possibility of sending military support.