The authoritarian leader dispatched his notorious riot police to disperse spontaneous rallies that erupted after he claimed a sixth presidential term in an election two weeks ago that critics say was rigged
Demonstrators massed in central Minsk on Sunday after opposition leaders called for a huge rally to demand the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the latest in a wave of protests against his disputed re-election.
The authoritarian leader dispatched his notorious riot police to disperse spontaneous rallies that erupted after he claimed a sixth presidential term in an election two weeks ago that critics say was rigged.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators draped in the red-and-white flags of the opposition flooded Independence Square and marched through the capital chanting "freedom" and "we will not forget; we will not forgive" as passing cars honked in support.
"We have just two demands: fair elections and stop the violence," 32-year-old Igor told AFP.
Officials issued a warning to Belarusians against participating in "illegal demonstrations" and local news outlets published videos on social media showing water cannon and riot police with shields moving towards Independence Square.
The defence ministry said it would intervene to protect "sacred" World War II memorials and several metro stations in Minsk were closed.
Opposition-leaning media and Telegram channels reported that more than 100,000 protesters had convened for the second Sunday in a row and an AFP journalist said smaller demonstrations erupted in provincial cities.
"Lukashenko wants everyone to leave and live like it was. But it won't be like it used to be," said Nikita, a 28-year-old protester.
Solidarity rallies were also due in neighbouring Lithuania, where demonstrators planned to form a human chain from Vilnius to the Belarus border, three decades after residents of the Baltic states joined hands and linked their capital cities in a mass protest against Soviet rule.
No 'second Ukraine'
The EU has rejected the results of the election and has vowed to sanction Belarusians responsible for ballot fraud and a police crackdown that saw nearly 7,000 people arrested and sparked gruesome allegations of torture and abuse in police custody.
Top EU diplomat Josep Borell warned that Belarus should not be allowed to become a "second Ukraine" and said it was necessary to deal with the 65-year-old Lukashenko, Europe's longest serving leader.
The man branded "Europe's last dictator" has brushed aside the calls to go, dismissed the possibility of holding a new vote and instructed his security services to quell unrest and secure the borders.
His judiciary opened a criminal investigation into the opposition's Coordination Council that is seeking new elections and the peaceful transition of power, after he said opponents wanted to "seize power."
The former collective farm boss ordered the military into full combat readiness during an army inspection on Saturday near the border with the EU and warned about Nato troop "stirrings" in neighbouring countries.
Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda said Lukashenko was trying to "divert attention" from unrest at home, while Nato dismissed the claims as baseless.