MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarusian authorities on Monday detained two leading opposition activists who have helped spearhead a wave of protests demanding the resignation of the country’s authoritarian ruler of 26 years.
The opposition’s Coordination Council said its members Sergei Dylevsky and Olga Kovalkova were detained by police in the capital, Minsk. City police confirmed their detention.
The move signals President Alexander Lukashenko’s determination to stifle the massive demonstrations that have entered their third week. It comes a day after the 65-year-old Belarusian leader toted an assault rifle in a show of force as he arrived at his residence by helicopter as protesters rallied nearby.
Last week, Lukashenko’s warned the council created to negotiate a transition of power that it could face criminal accusations for creating what he described as a parallel government. The Belarusian prosecutors then opened a criminal inquiry into the council members on charges of undermining national security, claims rejected by the council’s members.
Dylevsky played a leading role in organizing the strike at the Minsk Tractor Plant, part of a series of labor actions that engulfed the nation’s top industrial plants last week in a major challenge to Lukashenko. Kovalkova is a top associate of the main opposition challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who moved to Lithuania after the vote under official pressure.
The detention of opposition activists follows Sunday’s demonstration in Minsk that drew an estimated 200,000 people pushing for President Alexander Lukashenko to step down following the Aug. 9 election, which the opposition saw as rigged. The previous Sunday saw a similar number of demonstrators, the largest the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million people ever saw.
Video on Sunday showed Lukashenko getting off his helicopter with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. Initially, the weapon had no ammunition clip but later the Belarusian leader, who cultivates an aura of machismo, attached it in a show of aggression.
He commented to his aides that the protesters “ran away like threats” and then thanked riot police who encircled the residence for safeguarding it.
“We will deal with them,” he said about the demonstrators.
Shortly before he spoke, the demonstrators approached the edges of the presidential residence grounds, but were stopped by lines of police in full riot gear and dispersed soon after amid rain.
Lukashenko has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-directed puppets and blamed the U.S. for instigating the protests that erupted after officials declared him the winner with 80% of the vote.
The protests were galvanized by a brutal post-election crackdown, which saw nearly 7,000 people detained and hundreds injured after police dispersed peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. 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.
The United States and the European Union have dismissed the Belarusian election as neither free nor fair and urged authorities to engage in dialogue with the opposition.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country currently holds the European Union’s presidency, said during a visit to Ukraine on Monday that “the extremely critical situation in Belarus can only be solved through an inclusive dialogue locally.”
Maas 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 that thee Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would be the right format to “initiate this dialogue.” He said German officials are 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 its neighbor’s internal affairs.
“We consider it wrong and have no intention to do so, at least not during the current ‘hot’ stage,” he said.
The two countries have a union treaty envisaging close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko said he secured Putin’s promise of security assistance if need be. The Belarusian leader has sought to rally Moscow’s support by trying to cast his foes as anti-Russia, even though the protesters carried no anti-Russia slogans.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Geir Moulson in Berlin, contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the political turmoil in Belarus at https://www.apnews.com/Belarus