Belarus leader says Putin offers help as pressure builds

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said Saturday that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has offered to help ensure the country’s security, as opposition protesters kept up the pressure on the veteran leader over his claim to have won re-election.¬†

Thousands of opposition supporters gathered in the capital at the spot where a demonstrator died during this week’s police crackdown on protests against Lukashenko’s claim to have won re-election last Sunday.

With the opposition gaining momentum after days of demonstrations, Lukashenko’s main election challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has asked supporters to rally over the weekend.

Demonstrators heaped flowers at the spot where Alexander Taraikovsky, 34, died on Monday. The crowd chanted “Thank you!” and raised victory signs while police kept a low profile.

Many held up photographs of protesters beaten during the crackdown, while one man stood in his underwear revealing the purple bruises on his thighs, buttocks and back.

Later thousands protested outside the Belarusian state television centre, complaining that their broadcasts backed Lukashenko and gave a skewed picture of the protests.

Riot police later arrived at the building and blocked off the entrance to the building.

– ‘I’m really afraid’ –

Facing the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power in 1994, Lukashenko called in Moscow’s help and spoke on the phone with Putin, after warning there was “a threat not only to Belarus”.

He later told military chiefs that Putin¬†had offered “comprehensive help” to “ensure the security of Belarus.”

The Kremlin said the leaders agreed the “problems” in Belarus would be “resolved soon” and the countries’ ties strengthened.

While Lukashenko periodically plays Moscow off against the neighbouring EU, Russia is Belarus’s closest ally and the countries have formed a “union state” linking their economies and militaries.

Lukashenko issued criticisms of Russia during his election campaign and Belarus detained 33 Russians on suspicion of planning riots ahead of polls.

Opposition protesters criticised Lukashenko for now seeking Moscow’s aid and said they fear a Russian intervention.

“It’s obvious that our president can’t deal with his own people any more, he’s seeking help in the east,” said Alexei Linich, a 27-year-old programmer.

“If Russia intervenes, that would be the worst. I’m really afraid of this,” said Olga Nesteruk, a landscape designer.

– ‘Will not give up the country’ –

Meeting military chiefs, Lukashenko ruled out foreign mediation between him and the protesters.

“”We will not give up the country to anyone,” he said in televised comments.

“We don’t need any foreign governments, any intermediaries.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday urged Lukashenko to “engage with civil society” while visiting Poland, which has offered to act as a mediator.

The opposition is planning a major show of force on Sunday with a “March for Freedom” through the streets of central Minsk.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other opposition candidates including her husband were jailed, accuses Lukashenko of rigging the vote and has demanded he step down so new elections can be held.

The 65-year-old has ruled the ex-Soviet country with an iron grip and claims to have won the election with 80 percent of the vote.

Tikhanovskaya left the country on Tuesday for neighbouring Lithuania, with her allies saying she came under official pressure. She has called for a weekend of “peaceful mass gatherings” in cities across the country.

She is also demanding authorities be held to account for the crackdown, which saw police use rubber bullets, stun grenades and, in at least one case, live rounds to disperse protesters, with at least 6,700 people detained and hundreds injured.

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including Taraikovsky who they say died when an explosive device went off in his hand during a protest, and another man who died in custody in the southeastern city of Gomel.

– Call for ‘free and fair’ vote –

On Friday authorities began releasing hundreds of those arrested and many gave horrific accounts of beatings and torture.

In some of the biggest demonstrations yet, thousands marched in Minsk on Friday to denounce the police violence and demand Lukashenko step down.

Workers from tractor and automobile factories downed tools for the first time and marched to the central square.

Lukashenko on Saturday called the strikes “a knife in the back.”

European Union ministers agreed Friday to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions in response to the post-election crackdown.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde said in a tweet that these would punish “those responsible for the violence, arrests and fraud in connection with the election”.

The leaders of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — on Saturday condemned the crackdown and called for a new vote.

Lukashenko has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled “sheep” and “people with a criminal past who are now unemployed”, repeatedly accusing foreign governments of plotting his downfall.

Tikhanovskaya on Friday announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to “help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities”.