Updated at 17:25,07-01-2021

Protest Crowd Swells In Belarus Despite Fresh Detentions, Official Volley At 'Unfeminine' Critics

By RFE/RL's Belarus Service with reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Interfax, and TASS

Protest Crowd Swells In Belarus Despite Fresh Detentions, Official Volley At 'Unfeminine' Critics
Tens of thousands of protesters are estimated to have come out onto the streets of Minsk today.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have gathered in downtown Minsk for an opposition March Of Heroes aimed at keeping pressure on the embattled regime of five-term President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, which has responded to weeks of intense protest with thousands of arrests, beatings, and intimidation.

The country's Interior Ministry said as the crowd in the capital gathered that it had already detained "around 250 people" on September 13 for offenses like displaying the banned red-and-white flag associated with the opposition and banners, "including an insulting one."

LIVE FEED: Protest Rally In Minsk (Current Time, natural sound)

Meanwhile, the ministry outlined arrests from the previous day and described women who gathered for a peaceful rally in the post-Soviet state's capital to oppose Lukashenka as "aggressive" and "unfeminine."

The September 12 women's march was another of the daily protests since officials declared Lukashenka the landslide winner of an August 9 presidential election that critics say was fraudulent, unleashing massive shows of opposition in the streets.

The Interior Ministry announced in anticipation of more anti-Lukashenka protests on September 13 that it had increased police and troop numbers in Minsk "to prevent illegal action by protesting citizens." It said police were "operating in a heavy security mode."

By midday, some of the first reports had already emerged of would-be demonstrators in a so-called March Of Heroes in Minsk carrying the opposition's red-and-white banners being hauled off into unmarked minibuses by unidentified individuals in balaclavas with weapons and truncheons.

As the numbers swelled into the tens of thousands, columns of people, some of them carrying flags, appeared to be orderly as they gathered in downtown Minsk.

People reported problems with Internet connections in the area.

A smaller protest was reported in the southeastern city of Homel.

In a separate statement earlier in the day, the Interior Ministry appeared to play up purported gatherings the previous day aimed at calming tensions in the country while downplaying anti-government demonstrations.

It said that "more than 50,000 people" had taken part in mass events in three regions "in support of peace, security, and tranquility."

Meanwhile, it said, the number of people at 12 protest actions in five regions "did not exceed 1,700 people."

The ministry said 114 people had been detained at the protests, 99 of them in the capital.

Police arrested dozens of the women who took part in the Minsk march and at least two journalists covering the event.

The Interior Ministry's press department went on to describe the women protesters as "aggressive."

"It's a shame to watch: screams, screeching, crush ... The behavior is unfeminine," it said.

Lukashenka, who has ruled the country for 26 years, has refused to hold talks with his opponents, and rebuffed calls to hold new elections.

Many of the most prominent leaders of the past month's opposition activities have been women, including exiled presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and detained members of the opposition Coordination Council like Maryya Kalesnikava and Lilia Vlasova.

Tikhanouskaya appealed last week for protesters to "remain peaceful" and urged international support to encourage a peaceful resolution to Belarus's "deep political crisis."

The second-largest grouping in the European Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), this week nominated the “brave women of Belarus” -- Tsikhanouskaya, Kalesnikava, and Veranika Tsapkala, another opposition leader -- for this year's Sakharov Prize for human rights activities.

Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania days after the election amid reports she might be arrested, while Tsapkala and her ex-diplomat husband went to Poland.

Kalesnikova reportedly tore up her passport to avoid being forced out of the country after being snatched off the street in Minsk, and remains in Belarusian detention.

In a press release announcing the nomination, Kati Piri, the S&D group's vice president, said that "we are firmly convinced that this year’s Sakharov Prize should honor the brave women of Belarus fighting for freedom and democracy in their country. We are particularly inspired by the three women who spearheaded the grassroots opposition campaign for last month’s presidential elections in an attempt to unseat autocratic dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka."

The Belarusian Association of Journalists and former Belarusian presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkievich were awarded the prize in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

Teachers from the language department of Belarusian State University in Minsk on September 12 issued a video appeal for freedom of speech.

"Fear is bad, violence is bad, lies are bad. You can’t pretend like nothing’s happening," the appeal, which includes nine speakers from the school, says. "We have the right to have our beliefs and express them, we have the right to support each other. Students, we are with you..."

More than a dozen students were detained at a September 5 protest near the school's language department.

But anti-government cracks have also opened among segments of the population, like blue-collar workers, where Lukashenka has traditionally sought vocal public support in the past.

The strike committee at one of the world's largest processors and exporters of potash fertilizers, Belaruskali, said via Telegram on September 13 that one of its members, Raman Leonchyk, had been detained and was at a local police station.

Protest Crowd Swells In Belarus Despite Fresh Detentions, Official Volley At 'Unfeminine' Critics

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on September 14 for their first face-to-face talks since the Belarusian leader publicly pleaded for help from Moscow to put down the demonstrations.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said their talks would focus on energy cooperation and bilateral ties.

Putin has pressed a reluctant Lukashenka on closer military and political integration between their countries -- including by promising military assistance under a bilateral military pact, including a police force -- but has so far cautiously backed the embattled Belarusian strongman.

Russia's Defense Ministry said on September 13 that its troops would participate alongside Belarusian soldiers in the annual Slavic Brotherhood tactical exercise at Belarus's Brest training range from September 14 September 25.

A Russian paratrooper division will take part in drills beginning on September 14, it said.

Vyasna human rights center director Ales Byalyatski warned this week that Lukashenka would seek to intensify detentions and threats ahead of the Putin meeting "to show the Kremlin that the protests are abating and he is in control of the situation," adding, "but so far repression has had the opposite effect."

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said on September 11 that Russia risked losing the friendship of the Belarusian people if the Kremlin continued to back Lukashenka.