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Belarus Says More Than 600 Detained As Mass Anti-Lukashenka Protests Continue

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A Belarusian opposition supporter wears a mask during a rally to protest the disputed results of the August 9 presidential election in Minsk on September 6.

MINSK -- Authorities in Belarus said on September 7 that they had detained some 633 protesters as tens of thousands marched in the capital and other cities the previous day as part of the continuing opposition-led effort to pressure President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to resign.

Meanwhile, police in Minsk denied they had detained a key member of the opposition's coordination group after an eyewitness reported seeing Maryya Kalesnikava taken away in a minivan as the protests entered their 30th day.

Lukashenka, who has ruled the country for 26 years, has refused to hold talks with his opponents and rebuffed calls to hold a new election since a vote last month that the opposition says was falsified.

Officials say Lukashenka won with 80 percent of the August 9 election, a number that democracy activists and the country’s leading opposition figure, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, dispute.

Tsikhanouskaya, who fled into Lithuanian exile days after the vote, is reportedly scheduled to visit Warsaw this week to hold meetings with top Polish officials.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on September 6 repeated a call for "inclusive national dialogue," saying "impressive mass demonstrations" around Belarus show the "determination of Belarusian people to achieve their freedoms, rights & democracy" in the face of "arrests, intimidation & violence."

One day later, Reuters quoted three unnamed EU diplomats as saying the bloc will seek to impose economic sanctions on 31 senior Belarusian officials, including Interior Minister Yury Karayeu, by the middle of this month.

Initial approval without specifying who would be targeted, was given in August.

"We initially agreed on 14 names but many states felt that was not sufficient. We have now reached consensus on another 17," one of the diplomatic sources told Reuters. "These are senior officials responsible for the election, for violence, and for the crackdown."

Independent Russian-language news portal Tut.by quoted an eyewitness as saying that Kalesnikava, a member of the opposition Coordinating Council's decision-making presidium, was abruptly taken into a minibus marked "Communication" early on September 7 and swept off toward an unknown destination.

"The Minsk police did not detain her," Interfax later quoted the police department of the Minsk City Executive as saying.

The Meduza news site reported that acquaintances had lost contact with the Coordinating Council's press secretary, Anton Randyonkau, and a staff member of a barred opposition presidential candidate's headquarters, Hleb Herman. They said both were incommunicado without explanation and there were concerns for their whereabouts.

The Interior Ministry's announcement on the number of detained represents a significantly higher figure than earlier estimates by rights campaigners and others monitoring the continuing crackdown.

They had cited around 180 detentions in Minsk and dozens more in Brest, Baranavichy, and the western city of Hrodna on September 6, the 29th straight day of anti-Lukashenka protests since a disputed August 9 presidential election.

Confrontations between police and demonstrators were also reported to the east in Mahilyou and in the southern city of Homel.

Lukashenka, who has ruled the country for 26 years, has refused to hold talks with his opponents, and rebuffed calls to hold a new election.

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Officials say he won with 80 percent of the vote, a number that democracy activists and the country’s leading opposition figure, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, dispute.

Opposition groups are also calling for the release of political prisoners and for an independent investigation of the police crackdown that swept up thousands in the days after the vote.

A small picket-style protest was already under way in Homel early on September 7.

Tsikhanouskaya, who ran for president after her husband was jailed following his announcement he would run, said on September 5 that her country is in “deep political crisis.”

“Belarusians have changed. They have woken up,” Tsikhanouskaya said from Vilnius, where she fled days after the vote.

Ahead of the September 6 protests, Lukashenka's security services warned of a crackdown against those who decided to participate in the unsanctioned demonstration in the capital.

But scenes from Minsk showed massive crowds and a long column of protesters on the avenue leading to the presidential palace, which was guarded by police in riot gear, and protected by metal fencing and water cannons.

Demonstrators were chanting, "Long live Belarus!" and, "Shame!" and carrying red-and-white flags and banners, a symbol of the opposition that has been banned by the authorities.

Police later dispersed protesters with the help of tear gas.

On September 5, two unsanctioned rallies organized separately by university students and women’s groups took place in Minsk.

News agencies reported that dozens of students were dragged from the streets at those events and pushed into vans by masked security agents.

In addition to thousands of detentions, Belarusian authorities have silenced local journalists and expelled foreign journalists, and prosecuted many opposition leaders.

With reporting by Current Time and Reuters
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