Belarusian police on Sunday detained opposition protesters and fired warning shots in the air as around 10,000 people hit the streets of Minsk in defiance of strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Tens of thousands have protested every Sunday in Belarus for nearly three months, after longtime ruler Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in an August presidential election.
Main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya denounced the vote as a fraud and has been backed by Western leaders who refuse to recognise the result.
Despite Lukashenko’s most recent threat to “take no prisoners”, protesters began marching from central Minsk to a site of Stalin-era executions just outside the capital.
An AFP journalist at the scene heard loud bangs and the sound of shots being fired, and witnesses said police fired in the air in an apparent attempt to stop the protesters.
It was unclear what kind of weapons were being used.
Videos circulated on social media showed that in a break from previous protests authorities deployed armoured all-terrain vehicles with roof-mounted machine guns in Minsk.
Interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told AFP that a number of people had been detained but denied that police used stun grenades and other riot-control equipment against demonstrators.
Tikhanovskaya, who has taken refuge in neighbouring Lithuania, said in an address to protesters: “We did not forget our past and we will not forget what is happening now.”
The ex-Soviet nation has been gripped by unprecedented demonstrations since the 66-year-old authoritarian leader claimed victory.
But the situation appears at an impasse, with the Moscow-backed Lukashenko refusing to go and the opposition unable to force his ouster.
Lukashenko this week appointed a new interior minister and police chief for Minsk and said he would quit only “in your dreams”.
“We will take no prisoners,” he said on Friday.
Tikhanovskaya — who says she won the August vote — urged her supporters to launch a national strike last Monday but its effect seems to have been limited and officials say the economy is operating normally.
Belarus this week closed land borders with EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as well as Ukraine, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
From Sunday, authorities also banned foreigners from entering the country via land border crossings.
After an initial police crackdown on protests that resulted in thousands of detentions and claims of torture in prisons, the authorities this month also threatened to use live ammunition to disperse protesters.