MINSK – Tens of thousands of Belarusians jammed the streets of Minsk and other cities and towns, as opposition protesters pressed their nearly five-week campaign to pressure President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to call new elections.
The Interior Ministry reported more than 400 arrests in the September 13 protests. Among them was RFE/RL photographer Uladz Hrydzin, who was with another photographer in a bar when a group of people wearing balaclavas detained them and confiscated their equipment.
Hrydzin, who was recently stripped of foreign-media accreditation, was detained just before he sent photos of the protest. He is due to appear in court on September 14.
The turnout in the Belarusian capital and elsewhere was the latest indication that opposition activists, and many average Belarusians, have been undaunted by thousands of arrests, beatings, and other intimidation tactics used by Belarusian security forces.
Chanting, "Long live Belarus!" and. "Sasha, you’re fired!", crowds packed one of Minsk’s main boulevards, waving the red-and-white opposition flags and carrying signs that taunted Lukashenka and government officials. One sign carried by protesters showed a photograph of Lukashenka and Russian leader Vladimir Putin and read: "Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are."
Lukashenka, who has ruled the country for 26 years, has refused to hold talks with his opponents, and rebuffed calls to hold new elections. The United Nations has estimated up to 6,000 people have been subjected to detentions and, in some cases, torture by Belarusian security agents.
Lukashenka made no public comment, or any public appearances, on September 13, one day before he was scheduled to fly to Russia to meet Putin for talks.
Authorities did not immediately release any estimate of the crowds; in the past, however, the public figures have been exceedingly low. The human rights group Vyasna, meanwhile, estimated the turnout at more than 150,000.
Trucks and some armored vehicles belonging to law enforcement agencies could be seen parked along some central Minsk streets, and, ahead of the demonstration, the Interior Ministry said it had increased police and troop numbers "to prevent illegal action by protesting citizens."
Some activists reported Internet outages in Minsk, a possible repeat of what happened in the hours after the August 9 election. Activists said the outages then were a tactic aimed at shutting down independent news reporting.
Helmeted security forces were reported to be detaining some marchers in parts of Minsk on September 13, and later in the day, masked riot police were seen marching, and carrying, detained protesters into police vans. The Interior Ministry reported that more than 400 people had been detained by nightfall.
The ministry also said "around 250 people" had been detained a day earlier, for offenses like displaying the banned red-and-white flag and banners, "including an insulting one."
Sizable protests also took place on September 13 in the southeastern city of Homel, and in the western border city of Brest, where activists reportedly carried a banner that read, "Hello to Khabarovsk from Brest" -- a reference to the weeks of anti-government protests that have occurred in the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk.
Brest police deployed a water cannon at one point to disperse protesters. It was unclear if there were detentions or injuries from the confrontation.
"Participants in the unauthorized mass gathering blocked traffic and public transport and created a threat to the safety of road users," Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said in a post on Telegram.
A day earlier, hundreds of women marched through Minsk, confronting masked riot police and security agents. The Interior Ministry said 114 people had been detained around the country, 99 of them in the capital, in connection with those demonstrations.
The Interior Ministry's press department, meanwhile, described the women protesters as "aggressive."
"It's a shame to watch: screams, screeching..." the ministry said. "Such behavior is unfeminine."
Many of Belarus’s most prominent opposition leaders are women, including exiled presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and detained members of the Coordination Council like Maryya Kalesnikava and Lilia Vlasova.
Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the election amid reports she might be arrested, appealed for protesters to "remain peaceful" and urged international support to encourage a peaceful resolution to the "deep political crisis."
Kalesnikava reportedly tore up her passport to avoid being forced out of the country after being snatched off the street in Minsk, and remains in Belarusian detention. Another prominent leader is Veranika Tsapkala, who went to Ukraine and then Poland along with her ex-diplomat husband.
Tsikhanouskaya, Kalesnikava, and Tsapkala have been nominated for this year's Sakharov Prize for human rights activities.
At the Belarusian State University in Minsk, teachers from the languages department issued a video appeal for freedom of speech. More than a dozen students were detained last week at a protest near the school's languages department.
"Fear is bad, violence is bad, lies are bad. You can’t pretend like nothing’s happening," the appeal, which included nine speakers, said.
Lukashenka has long had a sizable base of support, particularly from the country’s older population, many of whom are nostalgic for the Soviet period. But cracks have also opened among segments of the population, like blue-collar workers, where Lukashenka has traditionally sought vocal public support in the past.
The strike committee at one of the world's largest processors and exporters of potash fertilizer, Belaruskali, said via Telegram on September 13 that one of its members had been detained and was at a local police station.
Lukashenka, meanwhile, was scheduled to travel to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin on September 14. Though the two have spoken more than five times by phone since August 9, the meeting, to be held in Black Sea resort of Sochi, will be the first face-to-face talks since Lukashenka publicly pleaded for help from Moscow to put down the demonstrations.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said their talks would focus on energy cooperation and bilateral ties.
Putin has pressed a reluctant Lukashenka on closer military and political integration between their countries -- including by promising military assistance under a bilateral military pact, including a police force -- but has largely given only tepid support.
Opposition websites and social-media supporters have adopted the slogan, "We won't let him sell the country" ahead of the Sochi meeting.
Russia's Defense Ministry said on September 13 that its troops would participate alongside Belarusian soldiers in the annual Slavic Brotherhood tactical exercise at a training range in western Belarus.
A Russian paratrooper division will take part in the drills beginning on September 14, it said.
Ales Byalyatski, the director of the Vyasna human rights center, warned that Lukashenka would seek to intensify detentions and threats ahead of the Putin meeting "to show the Kremlin that the protests are abating and he is in control of the situation."
“But so far repression has had the opposite effect,” he said.