MINSK -- Police in Belarus have detained at least 15 activists and politicians who protested the removal of dozens of wooden crosses commemorating victims of Soviet-era repressions.
The crosses were being removed from a memorial site at Kurapaty, a wooded area on the outskirts of Minsk where at least 30,000 people killed by Soviet authorities were buried during the 1930s and 1940s.
Early in the morning, on April 4, eight excavators arrived at the site and started digging up the crosses. Police intervened when several activists tried to stop the excavators.
The detained activists include former leader of the opposition Malady Front (Youth Front) movement, Zmitser Dashkevich; the co-chairman of the opposition Christian Democratic Party's founding committee, Paval Sevyarynets; and activists Dzyanis Urbanovich and Pilip Shaurau.
It was not immediately clear on whose authority the crosses were being removed, as there was no official statement about the work from Belarusian government officials.
"They used excavators to immediately take the crosses away. They knocked down all the crosses along Zaslauye Road. There are many vehicles in the operation: excavators, tractors, dump trucks and others," Belsat quoted Sevyarynets as saying shortly before being detained.
A Belsat correspondent added that uniformed and plainclothes police were preventing journalists from accessing the area.
In 2017, Belarusian authorities halted the construction of a business center near the protected historical site at Kurapaty following a 15-day protest by activists.
The protesters said at the time that the construction project would desecrate the memory of the victims of Soviet ruler Josef Stalin's repression.
The government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka tolerates little dissent and authorities frequently break up protests.
Lukashenka, who has been president since 1994, won a fifth term in a 2015 election that was deemed by Western monitors to be neither free nor fair.