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Tens of thousands of protesters stage ‘March for Freedom’ in Minsk

Tens of thousands of Belarusian opposition supporters have gathered in Minsk this afternoon to join a ‘March for Freedom’ over President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election.

Chanting ‘Leave!’, the protesters marched down Independence Avenue following an opposition call for the biggest rally yet in a week of demonstrations since the vote.

Columns of demonstrators raised victory signs and held flowers and balloons. Many wore white, the colour that has come to symbolise the opposition movement. Those marching included a group of veteran paratroopers in uniform berets.

Tens of thousands of Belarus opposition supporters attend a rally in central Minsk on August 16

A woman Belarus opposition supporter with a drawing of a former white-red-white flag of Belarus used in opposition to the government punches the air during a demonstration in central Minsk on August 16

A woman Belarus opposition supporter with a drawing of a former white-red-white flag of Belarus used in opposition to the government punches the air during a demonstration in central Minsk on August 16

'The elections were valid. There could not be more than 80 percent of votes falsified. We will not hand over the country,' he said

‘The elections were valid. There could not be more than 80 percent of votes falsified. We will not hand over the country,’ he said

Demonstrators held placards with slogans such as ‘We are against violence’ and ‘Lukashenko must answer for the torture and dead’.

Protesters walked through the city carrying a 100-metre-long red-and-white flag, once the state flag and now used to represent opposition to the current regime.

They chanted ‘Long live Belarus!’ and called for Lukashenko to ‘Leave!’ as cars honked horns in support.

People take part in a protest against the presidential election results demanding the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the release of political prisoners

People take part in a protest against the presidential election results demanding the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the release of political prisoners

Former Belarusian paratroopers take part in a protest against the presidential election results demanding the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the release of political prisoners, in Minsk, Belarus, on August 16

Former Belarusian paratroopers take part in a protest against the presidential election results demanding the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the release of political prisoners, in Minsk, Belarus, on August 16

Members of the Belarusian diaspora and Ukrainian activists attend a rally in support of Belarus people protesting vote rigging in the presidential election, in the center of Kiev on August 16

Members of the Belarusian diaspora and Ukrainian activists attend a rally in support of Belarus people protesting vote rigging in the presidential election, in the center of Kiev on August 16

The protests came as Lukashenko held a rally for supporters in central Minsk, urging them to save the country from destruction. 

As mass protests continued against his rule, Lukashenko spoke on the capital’s Independence Square, blasting his opponents as ‘rats’. 

Speaking to supporters, he said: ‘I called you here not to defend me… but for the first time in a quarter-century, to defend your country and its independence.’

Lukashenko, under pressure from the European Union for cracking down on his opponents, said NATO tanks and planes had been deployed 15 minutes from the Belarusian border. 

NATO said it was closely monitoring the situation in Belarus, but that there was no military build-up at the country’s western border. 

The strongman who has ruled Belarus for the last 26 years is facing the greatest challenge to his leadership from a growing protest movement fanned by a brutal police crackdown.

‘I’m not a fan of rallies but alas, it’s not my fault I had to call you to help me,’ the 65-year-old said as some 10,000 supporters waved national flags and shouted ‘Thank you!’ and ‘Belarus!’

Members of the Belarusian diaspora and Ukrainian activists attend a rally in support of Belarus people protesting vote rigging in the presidential election, in the center of Kiev on August 16

Members of the Belarusian diaspora and Ukrainian activists attend a rally in support of Belarus people protesting vote rigging in the presidential election, in the center of Kiev on August 16

Supporters of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko wave communist party and national flags as they take part in a rally in Minsk today

Supporters of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko wave communist party and national flags as they take part in a rally in Minsk today 

Wiping his brow, the president standing at a podium in a short-sleeved shirt, insisted on the legitimacy of last Sunday’s presidential poll in which he claimed victory over popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

‘The elections were valid. There could not be more than 80 percent of votes falsified. We will not hand over the country,’ he said, as Tikhanovskaya has called for fresh elections after the official count gave Lukashenko 80 percent and her 10 percent.

He referred to the country’s history and the successes of his rule.

elarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses his supporters gathered at Independent Square of Minsk

elarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses his supporters gathered at Independent Square of Minsk

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko wipes his face as he addresses his supporters gathered at Independent Square of Minsk, Belarus

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko wipes his face as he addresses his supporters gathered at Independent Square of Minsk, Belarus

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko takes off his coat prior to delivering a speech to supporters gathered at Independent Square of Minsk, Belarus

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko takes off his coat prior to delivering a speech to supporters gathered at Independent Square of Minsk, Belarus

‘We built a sovereign independent country for the first time in our history,’ he said, reminiscing about the ‘difficult years’ of the 1990s.

‘What do you want now?’ he asked supporters.

He warned of a threat from neighbouring NATO countries as well as from the opposition movement calling for new elections, as the crowd shouted ‘No!’ 

‘If we kowtow to them, we will go into a tailspin and will never stabilise our aircraft,’ he said.   

Lukashenko, who has alleged a foreign-backed plot to topple him, said Belarus was under pressure and voiced concerns over Nato military exercises taking place in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania. 

‘NATO troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and our native Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections,’ he said, adding that Belarus would ‘die as a state’ if new polls were held.

‘I have never betrayed you and will never do so,’ he said.

Thousands of people attend a rally in support of the Belarusian Opposition to demonstrate against police brutality and the presidential election results, in Minsk on Sunday

Thousands of people attend a rally in support of the Belarusian Opposition to demonstrate against police brutality and the presidential election results, in Minsk on Sunday 

Belarus airborne veteran shouts as he carries a poster reading "We are against violence!" during an opposition rally in central Minsk on August 16

Belarus airborne veteran shouts as he carries a poster reading ‘We are against violence!’ during an opposition rally in central Minsk on August 16

Belarus airborne veteran shouts slogans during an opposition rally in central Minsk on August 16

Belarus airborne veteran shouts slogans during an opposition rally in central Minsk on August 16

‘We will perish as a state, as a people, as a nation,’ he said, as security staff stood nearby with his teenage son Nikolai.

Lukashenko called the rally ahead as the opposition movement called for nationwide ‘March of Freedom’ protests and tens of thousands gathered in Minsk.

On a nearby street, his opponents shouted ‘Leave!’

Lukashenko earlier spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin who told the Belarusian leader that Moscow stood ready to provide help in accordance with a collective military pact if necessary, the Kremlin said in a statement.  

Belarus airborne veterans walk during an opposition rally in central Minsk on August 16

Belarus airborne veterans walk during an opposition rally in central Minsk on August 16

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