Belarusian riot police arrested hundreds of peaceful anti-government protesters who took part in rallies in Minsk and other cities on the March 25 Freedom Day marked by the opposition.
The crackdown comes after several weeks of lower-level detentions at smaller rallies that began as a protest against a tax on the unemployed but grew into an anti-government campaign. The EU has called for the release of all detained peaceful protesters.
Demonstrators tried to march down a main street in Minsk, but were blocked by police who started to arrest them along with journalists covering the protest.
“They're beating the participants, dragging women by the hair to buses. I was able to run to a nearby courtyard,” demonstrator Alexander Ponomarev told AP news agency.
“We want to work, so our families can have a decent life,” one marcher said in footage aired on the Nastoyarshee Vremya online feed that showed police dragging people away to waiting vans.
Mobile internet was temporarily switched off in central Minsk to prevent photo and video streaming. At least 35 journalists were also reportedly detained but mostly released shortly after. At least four media workers were claimed to be still in custody late on March 25.
The authorities’ actions were quickly condemned by rights groups abroad.
“The government should respect the right of all of its citizens to freely assemble, and should release without charges, searches, or any further harassment all of those detained. It should live up to its promises to the international community to begin respecting fundamental freedoms,” Marc Behrendt, director of Freedom House Eurasia programmes, said in a statement.
The republic’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko earlier blamed “Western funds, intelligence services” for attempting to distabilise the situation in Belarus through anti-government protests.
The remarks came as a further blow to a cautious process of rapprochement between the republic’s leadership and the West, particularly the EU, which a year ago removed most of its economic sanctions against Belarus.
“The Ukrainian scenario will not happen in Belarus with me as president,” Lukashenko said on March 24, referring to mass protests in Kyiv that led to the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.
Organisers called the protest Freedom Day, harking to the independent Belarus that lasted only six months after the First World War, in 1918.
In the days leading up to March 25, the Belarusian KGB state security service said it arrested 26 people in the past few on suspicion of training and preparing for street riots, state media reported.
“Some want to destabilise the situation, and they use our scumbags for that,” added Lukashenko, who has ruled the republic since 1994. “They were like partisans, digging pits and hiding stuff. They hid arms, rebars, axes, knives, grenades, etc ... There is a line that nobody should cross.”