MINSK -- Hundreds of people were detained by Belarusian security forces in Minsk on October 11 in what observers said was the most violent crackdown in weeks against protesters demanding an end to the authoritarian rule of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Police used water cannons, stun grenades, and tear gas to disperse crowds in central Minsk after blocking streets and closing metro stations.
Some 586 people, including at least 40 journalists, were detained, mostly in Minsk, but in other cities as well, according to the human rights organization Vyasna.
Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the winner of the country’s August 9 presidential election amid allegations of widespread vote rigging.
His top rival, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was forced to flee to Lithuania after the vote, which supporters and others say she won. She left Belarus for Lithuania after the election amid reports that she and her family were threatened by authorities.
The EU and United States have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate ruler of Belarus.
In Minsk on October 11, peaceful protesters were beaten by police and dragged into minibuses at the outset of the demonstration.
Black-clad security forces hit demonstrators and carried them to small buses. Some were pinned to the ground by masked police, while others, injured with bandaged heads, could be seen sitting on the ground.
The demonstration comes a day after the 66-year-old Lukashenka met with opposition leaders imprisoned at a detention facility run by the country’s KGB security service, ostensibly to discuss plans for constitutional reforms.
A photo posted by Lukashenka's press service on the Telegram messenger app showed him sitting at an oval table with prisoners who included Viktar Babaryka, a banker once seen as Lukashenka’s toughest rival in the August election but who was prevented from running and jailed.
Others in the picture include Lilia Vlasova, a lawyer who is a member of the opposition's Coordination Council, and the Belarusian-American political analyst Vitali Shkliarov.
Belarusian opposition figures described the visit as a sign of weakness from Lukashenka.
Tsikhanouskaya said on October 10 that Lukashenka had "acknowledged the existence of political prisoners whom he used to call criminals." But she said, "You can't have dialogue in a prison cell."
Tsikhanouskaya also said she was allowed on October 10 to have her first phone call in four months with her jailed husband, video blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski.
Tsikhanouskaya only stood as a presidential candidate against Lukashenka after the jailing of her husband by Belarusian authorities eliminated his possibility of running in the election.