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Belarus president says Nato stoking wave of protests


Questioned: Opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova

Questioned: Opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova

Questioned: Opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova

Belarus's hardline president accused Nato of hatching aggressive plans as he sought to shore up his 26-year rule amid weeks of demonstrations against his re-election.

Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1994, blamed the West for fomenting demonstrations in Belarus in hopes of turning it into a "bridgehead against Russia".

"They want to topple this government and replace it with another one that would ask a foreign country to send troops in support," he said. "They want our market to sell their products."

Nato has rejected previous such claims by Mr Lukashenko. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week that the Belarusian leader tries to conjure up the image of outside forces threatening Belarus as an excuse for his crackdown on the opposition, which has seen hundreds of protesters beaten by police.

The idea that Belarus's ailing economy would be seen as a beacon for exporters seems to defy current economic realities. Protests have been fuelled by growing weariness about Mr Lukashenko's rule, his dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic and a bruising economic fallout from the outbreak in a country where living standards were falling.

The Belarusian leader (65) has repeatedly sought to cast the protests demanding his resignation as part of a Western plot against Russia, in a bid to secure Moscow's support. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Thursday that he stands ready to send police into Belarus if protests there turn violent but sees no such need yet.

The wave of protests that came after election officials declared Mr Lukashenko had won a sixth term in a landslide in the August 9 presidential election has cast an unprecedented challenge to his rule. Both the European Union and the United States have said the vote was neither free nor fair.

A crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in the days after the vote left nearly 7,000 people detained, hundreds injured by police and at least three protesters dead. Police stopped interfering with the demonstrations for two weeks, but again began dispersing rallies over the past days, albeit without violence.

Minsk's Viasna human rights centre said 267 people were detained when police broke up a rally of about 1,500 people on the city's main Independence Square on Thursday evening.

The EU has agreed to impose sanctions on up to 20 Belarus officials suspected of election fraud and the crackdown on protesters, and is likely to put Mr Lukashenko on its list, the bloc's foreign ministers said yesterday at a meeting.

In Vienna, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe offered to mediate between the sides in Belarus.

Mr Lukashenko has rejected mediation offers from the West, dismissing protesters as Western puppets. His main election challenger has fled the country. On Thursday, the most prominent opposition figure still in Belarus, Maria Kolesnikova, was questioned in a criminal case that is targeting dissenting voices.

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Yesterday, hundreds of opposition supporters again formed "chains of solidarity" across Minsk as the protests entered their 20th day. "A peaceful protest is stronger than clubs and fear," said demonstrator Maxim Zhurkov (30). "We feel that we are the majority, and that means that a breakthrough will come."

The opposition is bracing for another rally in Minsk ­tomorrow.

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