Video report by Correspondent Neil Connery
Protesters have filled the streets in Belarus for an eighth consecutive day for what some have claimed to be the largest gathering in the country’s history, demanding their leader resigns after a presidential vote they call fraudulent.
President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in the August 9 presidential election, but opposition supporters believe the election figures were manipulated and claim protesters have been beaten mercilessly by police since the vote.
Official results say the authoritarian Mr Lukashenko won a sixth term with about 80% of the vote, however, the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claims she won between 60% and 70%.
Huge crowds gathered for protests in Belarus
Thousands of demonstrators are marching from Independence Avenue in the country’s capital Minsk on Sunday, walking along the central streets and squares.
They claim the election was a sham and allege results were manipulated.
However, thousands of counter-protesters have also gathered in a square near Belarus' main government building for a rally to support Mr Lukashenko.
And, despite the mass protests, Lukashenko rejected any possibility of repeating the vote, lashing out at the West and declaring his country will “perish as a state” if the election is rerun.
Watch counter-protesters in support of Lukashenko
During the ongoing protests, police and demonstrators have violently clashed and harsh police crackdowns have led to the detention of some 7,000 people.
Many detainees were later released, complaining of brutality from police while in custody and showing extensive bruises.
But this has not quashed the anti-government movement, as protesters continue to take the streets and vow to force Mr Lukashenko from power.
On Sunday, as Mr Lukashenko's supporters waited for his appearance at a pro-government rally, chanting his nickname of “Batka," or father, and “Maidan won't take place,” referring to the months of protest in Ukraine in 2013-14 that drove then-president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country. “Now everybody is against Lukashenko and the president needs our support.
"Everybody suddenly has forgotten the good things he has done - there's order in the country, we don't have war of hunger,” said supporter Tamara Yurshevich, a 35-year-old lawyer.
On Saturday, demonstrators rallied at the spot in Minsk where a protester died this week in clashes with police.
Some male protesters pulled off their shirts to show bruises they said came from police beatings and others carried pictures of loved ones beaten so badly they could not attend the rally.
Belarus' declining economy and Mr Lukashenko's dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic as “psychosis” are among the factors that galvanized the largest and most sustained protests the country has seen.
In response, the president declared that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had agreed to provide security assistance to restore order if Belarus requested it, as he struggled to counter the biggest challenge yet to his 26 years in power.
Mr Luksahenko, known as "Europe's last dictator", did not specify what sort of assistance Russia would be willing to provide. But he said “when it comes to the military component, we have an agreement with the Russian Federation,” referring to a mutual support deal the two former Soviet republics signed back in the 1990s.
“These are the moments that fit this agreement,” he added.
Mr Lukashenkov’s main opponent in the vote, Ms Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania the day after the election, knowing that several previous presidential challengers have been jailed for years on charges that supporters say were trumped up.
Meanwhile, a funeral was held on Saturday for Alexander Taraikovsky, a 34-year-old protester who died Monday in the capital of Minsk under disputed circumstances.
Belarusian police said he died when an explosive device he intended to throw at police blew up in his hand.
But his partner, Elena German, said when she saw his body in a morgue on Friday, his hands showed no damage and he had a perforation in his chest that she believes is a bullet wound.