Belarusian authorities say they detained more than 200 people as citizens took to the streets of Minsk and other cities, heeding a call by opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to start a new wave of protests against Alyaksandr Lukashenka to coincide with the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic.
Tsikhanouskaya urged Belarusians to use the annual Freedom Day celebration to hold street rallies across the country to pressure the authoritarian leader and declare their unity against the political crisis that has enveloped Belarus since Lukashenka was declared the winner of a presidential election in August 2020 that the opposition says was rigged.
But the event in Minsk faced challenges from police, who refused to agree to provide security for the activists, and Amnesty International expressed concern about how authorities would respond.
Security forces, including police and Interior Ministry troops, military vehicles, and police vans were positioned across Minsk ahead of the planned action.
By late afternoon, Belarusians, many of them holding the red-white flag of the first republic, made their way to the center of Minsk, with some gathering on October Square, while cars honked their horns in solidarity.
The Interior Ministry said in the evening that more than 200 people had been detained in connection with unauthorized gatherings throughout the country.
The Belarusian human rights monitor Vyasna (Spring) reported 126 detentions in the capital alone.
The Nexta Telegram channel, which has mobilized and coordinated demonstrations, urged protesters to march through courtyards and organize flash mobs.
Nexta has also called for mass protests on March 27, casting it as "the day we start the second wave of street protests."
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, predicted the large protests the country witnessed in the wake of the election would return.
"People need to be shoulder to shoulder with one another, to see again that they are the majority, to feel that energy they got from those large marches," Viacorka told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
One woman appeared to be grabbed off the street by police in Minsk in a video interview with a marching Nina Bahinskaya, a frail yet fiery veteran of protests in Belarus for decades.
Detentions were also reported at Independence Square, with the independent news website Tut.by posting video on Telegram of police chasing one protester down the street.
Lukashenka's victory declaration sparked protests that have continued since the election on an almost daily basis. Some of the largest ones drew tens of thousands of people to the streets to demand that Lukashenka step down, that fresh elections are held, and that political prisoners are released.
Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands. Several protesters have been killed in the violence, some were handed prison terms, while rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.
Ahead of the planned action, the commander of Interior Ministry troops, Mikalay Karpyankou, described Belarusian protesters as "enemies of our state," before vowing to "deal with them quickly," and harshly as in the past "with pleasure."
Lukashenka has denied any wrongdoing and refuses to negotiate his departure from office and new elections.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka, 66, as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the "falsification" of the vote and the postelection crackdown.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
In turn, Lukashenka's government has justified its actions by casting protesters as pawns of foreign forces and being bent on causing havoc.
KGB chief Ivan Tertel told Lukashenka on March 9 that foreign actors were applying "unprecedented pressure on our state," claiming -- without providing evidence -- that plans had been discovered to "destabilize the situation" in Belarus on March 25-27.
March 25 is the 103rd anniversary of the Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for less than a year in 1918. The day has been celebrated annually in Belarus since 1989.
Amnesty International warned that Belarusian authorities have indicated that they are prepared to turn Freedom Day rallies into “yet another scene of appalling violence.”
Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, said the police response to demonstrations planned for March 25 "will yet again be marked by severe violence" and called for international action to protect the rights of peaceful protesters.
"The world cannot stand by in the face of these threats," Struthers said, calling on diplomatic representatives in Belarus to monitor the March 25 protests, livestream events, and use their diplomatic immunity to expose police violence.
Tsikhanouskaya is currently in Lithuania, where she relocated for security reasons after the August 9 presidential election that she and her supporters say she won.
On March 25, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania imposed travel bans on another 118 Belarusian officials.
The first round of bans since November expands the list of the sanctioned, already including Lukashenka, to a total of 274, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said.
"If the situation in Belarus keeps deteriorating, and the illegal Lukashenka regime keeps its violence and repressions against peaceful protesters, opposition, civil society and independent media -- the national and European Union sanctions lists will be expanded further," the ministry said in a statement.