Belarus workers on the streets as EU chief calls summit

International By: The Bullet Wire 4:45 am

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Thousands of factory workers in Belarus took to the streets and crowds of demonstrators besieged the state television headquarters Monday, raising the pressure on authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down after 26 years in office.

On the ninth straight day of protests against the official results of the Aug. 9 presidential vote, Lukashenko flew by helicopter to a factory in the capital in a bid to rally support but was heckled by workers chanting “Go away!”

Facing the angry crowd, the 65-year-old former state farm director dismissed the calls to step down.

“I will never cave in to pressure,” Lukashenko told the workers, saying those who intend to go on strike could leave if they want.

“There will be no new election until you kill me,” he shouted, charging that the protests are ruining the economy and warning that the country will collapse if he steps down.

As he spoke, over 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant marched down the streets of the city, demanding that Lukashenko cede his post to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate.

“Lukashenko is a former president. He needs to go,” said Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest at the Minsk Tractor Plant, adding that Tsikhanouskaya is “our president, legitimate and elected by the people.”

Dylevsky voiced concern that Lukashenko’s calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin could herald an attempt by the country’s giant eastern neighbor to send in troops to prop up Lukashenko.

“We don’t want that, and we won’t let that happen,” he said.

Lukashenko spoke twice with Putin over the weekend and reported that the Russian leader said Moscow stands ready to provide support in the face of what he described as foreign aggression. He claimed that NATO nations are beefing up military forces on the border with Belarus, a claim the alliance rejected.

Lithuania also warned about worrying signs that Russia might be planning to use the situation to take over Belarus.

The official results of the Aug. 9 vote gave Lukashenko 80% of the votes and Tsikhanouskaya only 10%, but the opposition claimed the vote was rigged. Tsikhanouskaya has said protocols from precincts around the country showed her winning 60-70% of the vote.

The 37-year-old former teacher left for neighboring Lithuania Tuesday under what her associates described as pressure from law enforcement officials. Her husband, an opposition blogger, whom she replaced on the ballot, has been in jail since May.

In a video statement released Monday, Tsikhanouskaya said she was ready to step in as the country’s new leader. “I’m ready to take on the responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down, return to its normal rhythm, in order for us to free all the political prisoners and prepare legislation and conditions for organizing new presidential elections,” she said.

A brutal crackdown on protesters in the wake of Sunday’s vote has left nearly 7,000 people detained and hundreds injured, as police dispersed the crowds of peaceful demonstrators with stun grenades, rubber bullets and clubs. The fierce clampdown provoked widespread anger, forcing the authorities to back off, and police have stood back since Thursday, letting protests go uninterrupted.

On Sunday, an estimated 200,000 people filled the central Independence Square and nearby avenues in the largest protest ever.

In Brussels, European Council President Charles Michel convened an emergency summit of EU leaders on Wednesday to discuss the handling of the election and the crackdown in the wake of the polls.

“The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader,” Michel said in a tweet. “Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed.”

On Friday, the 27 EU foreign ministers underlined that the elections were neither free nor fair and decided to start drawing up a list of people who could face sanctions over their role in the violence.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged Lukashenko to “follow the path of talks, not to rely on violence but on dialogue.”

“I appeal to the Belarusian military not to sin by using violence against their own people,” he said.

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Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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