Belarusian police kettled and arrested hundreds of protesters and detained dozens of journalists in an apparent show of force after Alexander Lukashenko was emboldened by Vladimir Putin’s earlier public promise of military support.
Warnings were delivered over loudspeakers overlooking the Minsk's Independence Square before the mass arrests began on Thursday evening. Then, shortly after 7.20pm local time (4.20pm GMT), police who had been waiting nearby in vans sprang into action.
Protesters who felt they had a chance ran, while the rest were locked in a kettle. Women and children were released almost immediately, but most stayed behind in solidarity. The men began to be detained at around 7.30pm, pushed onto green police trucks in their dozens.
The Independent witnessed more than 200 arrests in total.
Women who remained on the square chanted in support of the men, with cries of “disgrace” and “tribunal” in reference to a hope Mr Lukashenko’s forces will eventually have their day in court.
From across the road, another group joined in, but it was not long before they too fell prey to police. Dozens scattered as they realised what was happening.
The arrests on Independence Square followed similar scenes at another earlier protest around the corner on Freedom Square. There, two dozen journalists including a BBC crew were rounded up by authorities before the demonstration even began — ostensibly for “document checks.”
Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, said the were held for held at a police station for two hours in “a clear attempt to interfere with coverage of events”.
For nearly three weeks, Mr Lukashenko has clung on to power in the face of unprecedented public pressure.
The protests against his rule began almost as soon as he rigged the 9 August election. But they have been driven more by the outrage that followed: the three days of rubber bullets, tear gas and torture in detention.
In the face of huge public anger, Mr Lukshensko’s men retreated and largely hid their teeth. That now seems to be changing.
Whether or not Mr Putin will follow through on his promise to back up Mr Lukashenko with a “law enforcement reserve” should “instability” or “violence” in Belarus supposedly demand it, the Russian president’s public statement has given Mr Lukashenko confidence.
What seems less clear is the effect it has had on the resolve of protesters.
At 8.20pm local time (5.20pm GMT), at a moment when the arrests were over and the detainees on their way to unknown destinations, the hundred or so women protesters who remained joined arms and marched off the square in unison.
“Long live Belarus!” they chanted.
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