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FILE PHOTO: People protest against presidential election results in Minsk FILE PHOTO: People protest against presidential election results in Minsk 

Belarus Detains Key Opposition Leaders As Unrest Spreads

Authorities in Belarus have detained the leader of striking factory workers in a move to pressure the opposition to end massive protests. Friday's detentions came after President Alexander Lukashenko ordered an end to mass protests, and prosecutors launched a criminal case against opposition leaders.

By Stefan J. Bos 

The Balarusian interior minister confirmed that Yevgeny Bokhvalov, who organized the strike at the huge Minsk Automobile Plant, was detained. 

The factory, which makes heavy trucks, has remained on strike since Monday along with many other industrial plants. Belarusian investigators also summoned three leading opposition activists for questioning. It is part of a criminal probe into their creation of an opposition coordination council to facilitate a peaceful transition of power.  

The detentions follow long-time President Lukashenko's warning that the opposition leaders could face criminal charges. His chief prosecutor has already accused them of trying to seize power by force and harming national security.

Among the three opposition council members detained was Pavel Latushko, who was a culture minister and ambassador to France. He earlier urged Russia and the European Union to mediate in the standoff between President Lukashenko and the opposition.  

"It is in our interest to have good relationships both with Russia and the EU," said opposition council member Latushko. "But Russia and the European Union are interested in having good relations with the Belarusian nation. It means that the EU and Russia have to meet society's expectations." 

'Society's will'

He added that they have to follow society's will, not the government, who he claimed, "already lost the trust of this society."  

It comes amid ongoing protests that erupted following the disputed August 9 presidential elections. Officials claim Lukashenko won the ballot with 80 percent of the vote, but demonstrators have their doubts. 

The European Union has expressed concern as police detained some 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and clubs in the first four days of protests alone. At least three protesters died.

European Council President Charles Michel said on Wednesday the EU will introduce sanctions against those responsible for the crackdown. "The European Union stands in solidarity with the people of Belarus. And we do not accept impunity. The protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics. This is about the right of the people to freely elect their leadership," he said.

He made it clear that "these elections were neither free nor fair, and did not meet international standards."

EU sanctions 

Michel stressed that the EU stands "firmly behind the right of the Belarusian people to determine their own fate". He warned that the "EU will impose shortly sanctions on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud."

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, President Lukashenko's primary challenger who left Belarus and went to Lithuania after the vote under pressure from authorities, has urged factory workers to continue striking. She said the future of Belarus and its children depended on their unity and resolve. 

She added: "We will force the authorities holed up in their palaces to hear our voice." 

The upheaval marks the toughest challenge to 65-year-old Lukashenko, who has ruled his nation for 26 years. 

21 August 2020, 17:27