MINSK -- Huge crowds gathered in the Belarusian capital in the biggest outpouring yet of opposition to the disputed reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as pressure mounts for him to step down after 26 years in power.
Some reports estimated the number of protesters assembled near the city's Victory Park at from 100,000 to more than 200,000 people, describing the rally as the largest-ever in Minsk. RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the crowd size.
Protesters were seen carrying the red-and-white flag used by the opposition, and shouting "Tribunal!", "Leave!", "Dismissed!", and "Freedom for political prisoners!"
Opposition demonstrations were also held in cities throughout the country.
The Minsk rally competed with a large pro-Lukashenka demonstration that began two hours earlier about 2 kilometers away, in the central Independence Square. As evening approached, participants in the opposition rally had moved to the grounds where the pro-presidential demonstration was held.
Lukashenka, addressing a crowd of supporters that the Interior Ministry estimated at 65,000 people, claimed that NATO tanks and planes had been deployed 15 minutes from the Belarusian border and neighboring countries were ordering the country to hold new elections, something he said he refused to do.
A NATO spokesperson later denied any troop buildup in Eastern Europe, saying, "NATO's multinational presence in the eastern part of the alliance is not a threat to any country." The statement went on to call on Belarus to respect basic freedoms, including the right to peaceful protest.
The Belarusian president, who opposition protesters say stole the August 9 election that gave him a sixth-straight term, also said that "one cannot rig 80 percent" -- the percentage of the vote officially given to him by the Central Election Commission.
He vowed to never give in to those demanding he step down and hold repeat elections, saying that "if someone wants to surrender the country, I will not allow that, even when I am dead."
He also alleged that the neighboring Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine were "ordering" a new election, a claim that the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called "an absolute lie."
Lukashenka addressed the crowd as the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told Lukashenka in a telephone call on August 16 that Russia was ready to provide aid under the terms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization if need be, and claimed Belarus was facing unspecified external pressure.
It was their second telephone conversation in as many days.
Lukashenka was declared the victor of the August 9 election by a landslide, with the main opposition challenger, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, trailing far behind despite drawing huge crowds at campaign rallies across the country.
No election in Belarus under Lukashenka has been deemed free and fair by the West.
Tsikhanouskaya has since gone to Lithuania, but has claimed to be the rightful winner and has called for peaceful protests across Belarus.
Some 7,000 people have been detained by police across Belarus in the postelection crackdown, with hundreds injured and at least two killed as police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, and, in at least one instance, live ammunition.
Hundreds of those held and subsequently released spoke of brutal beatings they suffered in detention, much of it documented and splashed across social media. Thousands more remain in detention as international outrage mounts.
Maryya Kalesnikava, opposition leader and former campaign manager of barred and jailed opposition candidate Viktar Babaryka, called at the Minsk rally for the release of "all political prisoners and detainees from peaceful and dissenting rallies," saying that more than 4,000 people remained in prison.
"And our main demand: the former president [Lukashenka] must resign!" she said.
Rallies were also held in other Belarusian cities. In Babruysk, more than 1,000 demonstrators unfurled a red-and-white banner that spanned the base of the eastern city's Lenin monument.
In Smalyavichy, northeast of Minsk, protesters marched carrying red-and-white balloons and flags and holding signs saying, "We are for Belarus."
Similar actions took place in the cities of Lahoysk and Nyasvizh.
The independent news site Tut.by reported that government workers and other state employees had been told to show up for the pro-Lukashenka rally or face being fired.
The holding of the two rallies within such a short distance raised concerns that the competing crowds could clash.
Metal fencing around Independence Square was installed early on August 16 with agricultural vehicles used to close off nearby roads.
Opposition media channels say Lukashenka, a onetime manager of a Soviet-era collective farm, was planning to bus people in from other parts of the country.
Video on social media showed people -- many bused in from other regions -- at the pro-Lukashenka rally chanting, "We're for Batka," meaning father, the nickname for Lukashenka.
And in a surprise move, Ihar Leshchenya, the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, declared solidarity with protesters in an undated video posted by Nasha Niva media late on August 15. Other state employees, including police officers and state TV staff, have also come out in support of the protests.
Some of the country's biggest state-run industrial plants have been hit by protests and walkouts in the past week.
While giving prayers on August 16, Roman Catholic Pope Francis said his thoughts were with "dear Belarus," and appealed "for dialogue, to rebuke violence and respect justice and rights."
The same day, the Synod of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church called on Belarus's leadership to end the violence, and "bring those who have committed atrocities and cruelty to lawful judgment and condemnation."
Meanwhile, thousands came out on August 15 to mourn the death of Alyaksandr Taraykouski who died in Minsk on August 10 during the postelection protests.
Demonstrators heaped flowers at the spot and the crowd chanted "Thank you!" and raised victory signs. Police kept a low profile.
Many held up photographs of protesters beaten during the crackdown, while one man stood in his underwear revealing the purple bruises on his thighs, buttocks and back.
The memorial came as AP published video that appears to contradict the official version of Taraykouski’s death.
The video shows Taraykouski wobbling with a blood-stained shirt before he collapses to the ground several meters from a line of riot police at Pushkinskaya subway station in the capital, Minsk.
According to the official version of events, an explosive device blew up in Taraykouski’s hands as he was trying to throw it at police, but nothing like that can be seen in the video.
Hours later, thousands turned up at the Minsk headquarters to protest state-run media coverage of the protests and what they say is the whitewashing of the authorities harsh handling of demonstrators.
The protesters urged state-media journalists to "respect" their audiences.
A state television lighting technician, Uladzimer Tsitarenka, told RFE/RL that "nearly 80 percent" of the technical staff were ready to join a general strike to protest the election.
"Everything will be decided on Monday [August 17]," he said.
Facing the most serious threat ever to his authoritarian rule, Lukashenka spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 15, after saying there was "a threat not only to Belarus."
He later told military chiefs that Putin had offered "comprehensive help" to "ensure the security of Belarus."
The Kremlin said the leaders agreed the "problems" in Belarus would be "resolved soon" and the countries' ties strengthened.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 15 urged Lukashenka to "engage with civil society", during a trip to Poland, which has offered to act as a mediator.
Demonstrators are demanding that the election results be invalidated, that a new election be held under a new Central Election Commission, and that all political prisoners be released.
The election commission declared Lukashenka the winner of the election with some 80 percent. Tsikhanouskaya says she won 60 to 70 percent of the vote.
Tsikhanouskaya said that she was initiating the creation of a “Coordination Council" for a potential transition of power. She’s also called on the international community to "help us in organizing a dialogue with Belarusian authorities.”