MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarusian authorities on Monday detained three leading opposition activists who have helped spearhead a wave of protests demanding the resignation of the country’s authoritarian president of 26 years following his reelection that opponents say was rigged.
The Coordination Council established by the opposition to negotiate a transfer of power said police detained members Sergei Dylevsky and Olga Kovalkova in Belarus’ capital, Minsk. Later in the day, the opposition also reported the detention of Alexander Lavrinovich, the leader of striking workers at a major industrial plant.
The police actions signal President Alexander Lukashenko’s determination to stifle massive post-election demonstrations that have entered their third week. The 65-year-old Belarusian leader toted an assault rifle in a show of force as he arrived at his residence by helicopter on Sunday while protesters rallied nearby.
Last week, Lukashenko’s warned that the opposition council’s members could face criminal accusations for creating what he described as a parallel government. Prosecutors in Belarus then opened a criminal inquiry on charges of undermining national security, an allegation rejected by the council’s members.
Dylevsky played a leading role in organizing a strike at the Minsk Tractor Plant, one of the multiple labor actions launched at the nation’s top industrial plants last week in support of the protests and in a major challenge to Lukashenko. Lavrinovich led the strike organizing committee at another major factory, the Minsk Wheeled Tow Truck Plant.
Kovalkova is a top associate of the main opposition challenger in the disputed Aug. 9 presidential election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who entered the presidential race after her husband was jailed and prevented from running, moved to Lithuania after the vote under official pressure.
Tsikhanouskaya met Monday with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. In a statement issued by her campaign headquarters, she reaffirmed her readiness for talks on a transition of power to settle the crisis in Belarus. Tsikhanouskaya also thanked the United States for supporting the Belarusian people.
The U.S. and the European Union have dismissed the Belarusian election as neither free nor fair and urged authorities to engage in dialogue with the opposition.
The activists’ detentions came a day after an anti-Lukashenko demonstration in Minsk drew an estimated 200,000 people pushing for the president to step down. A protest in the capital a week earlier had a similar number of participants, making it the largest ever held in the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million people.
The demonstrations are challenging the official results of the election, which gave Lukashenko a sixth term with an unlikely 80% of the vote.
The president, who cultivates an air of machismo, has dismissed the opposition as puppets of the West and accused the United States of fomenting the unrest.
Video on Sunday showed Lukashenko getting off his helicopter with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. He was accompanied by his 15-year-old younger son, who also had a rifle in hand.
The Belarusian leader commented to his aides that the protesters “ran away like threats” and then thanked riot police who encircled the presidential residence.
“We will deal with them,” he said about the demonstrators.
Shortly before he spoke, the demonstrators approached the edges of the residence grounds, but were stopped by lines of police officers in full riot gear and dispersed soon after amid rain.
Maria Kolesnikova, a leading member of the opposition council, described Lukashenko’s act as a reflection of his nervousness in the face of protests.
“The authorities are afraid of the majority and clearly nervous,” Kolesnikova said.
She described the detention of her colleagues as “crude pressure and an attempt to scare us.”
“They ignore our proposals for a dialogue and respond with repressions,” she told The Associated Press.
The election protests were galvanized by a brutal crackdown during the first few days, when police detained nearly 7,000 people detained. Hundreds were injured when officers dispersed peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three people died.
As crowds of protesters swelled amid public outrage, the authorities backed off and let demonstrations go unhindered. However, the authorities again beefed up police cordons around the city since last week and threatened opposition activists with criminal charges.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country currently holds the European Union’s presidency, urged Lukashenko to “recognize the reality on the streets of his country but also the reality in the heads of the people in this country.” He said during a visit to Ukraine on Monday that “the extremely critical situation in Belarus can only be solved through an inclusive dialogue locally.”
He said German officials were calling on Russia to use what influence it has with Lukashenko “to make clear to him that he can no longer get past this dialogue.”
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Russia hasn’t had any contacts with the Belarusian opposition, noting that such a move would amount to meddling in a neighbor’s internal affairs.
“We consider it wrong and have no intention to do so, at least not during the current ‘hot’ stage,” Peskov said.
Russia and Belarus have a union treaty envisaging close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko said he secured Putin’s promise to provide security assistance, if need be.
The Belarusian leader has sought to rally Moscow’s support by trying to cast his foes as anti-Russia, although the protesters in Belarus have not displayed anti-Russia slogans.
By YURAS KARMANAU Associated Press
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Geir Moulson in Berlin, contributed to this report.