Belarus authorities detain 3 leading opposition activists
Alexander Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, has shown little interest in dialogue with protesters
Belarusian authorities on Monday detained three leading opposition activists who have helped spearhead a wave of protests demanding the resignation of the country's authoritarian president following his re-election in a vote opponents say was rigged.
The Coordination Council established by the opposition to negotiate a transfer of power said police detained members Sergei Dylevsky and Olga Kovalkova in Belarus's capital, Minsk. Later in the day, the opposition also reported the detention of Alexander Lavrinovich, the leader of striking workers at a major industrial plant.
The police actions signal President Alexander Lukashenko's determination to stifle massive post-election demonstrations that have entered their third week. The 65-year-old Belarusian leader toted an assault rifle in a show of force as he arrived at his residence by helicopter on Sunday while protesters rallied nearby.
Last week, Lukashenko warned that individuals tied to the opposition council could face criminal accusations for creating what he described as a parallel government. Prosecutors in Belarus then opened a criminal inquiry on charges of undermining national security, an allegation rejected by the council's members.
Dylevsky played a leading role in organizing a strike at the Minsk Tractor Plant, one of the multiple labour actions launched at the nation's top industrial plants last week in support of the protests and in a major challenge to Lukashenko.
Kovalkova is a top associate of the main opposition challenger in the disputed Aug. 9 presidential election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the vote under official pressure. Lavrinovich led the strike organizing committee at another major factory, the Minsk Wheeled Tow Truck Plant.
Tikhanovskaya met Monday with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius.
In a statement issued by her campaign headquarters, she reaffirmed her readiness for talks on a transition of power to settle the crisis in Belarus. Tikhanovskaya also thanked the United States for supporting the Belarusian people.
"She is a very impressive person and I can see why she is so popular in her country," Biegun said after the meeting. "The United States cannot and will not decide the course of events in Belarus, this is the right of Belarusian people."
The U.S. and the European Union have dismissed the election as neither free nor fair and urged authorities to start a dialogue with the opposition.
Biegun is set to visit Moscow on Tuesday and Wednesday, where the Belarus conflict is expected to be a topic on the agenda.
Another large demonstration in Minsk
The detentions came a day after an anti-Lukashenko demonstration in Minsk drew an estimated 200,000 people pushing for the president to step down. A protest in the capital a week earlier had a similar number of participants, making it the largest ever held in the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million people.
The demonstrations are challenging the official results of the election, which gave Lukashenko a sixth term with an unlikely 80 per cent of the vote.
The president has dismissed the opposition as puppets of the West and accused the United States of fomenting the unrest.
Video on Sunday showed Lukashenko getting off his helicopter with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. Initially, the weapon had no ammunition clip, but later, the Belarusian leader, who has cultivated an aura of machismo, attached it. He was accompanied by his 15-year-old son, who also had a rifle in hand.
Shortly before he spoke, the demonstrators approached the edges of the residence grounds but were stopped by lines of police officers in full riot gear and dispersed soon after amid rain.
Lukashenko thanked riot police who encircled the presidential residence.
"We will deal with them," he said about the demonstrators.
Maria Kolesnikova, a leading member of the opposition council, described Lukashenko's act as a reflection of his nervousness in the face of protests.
"The authorities are afraid of the majority and clearly nervous," Kolesnikova she told The Associated Press.
She described the detention of her colleagues as "crude pressure and an attempt to scare us."
"They ignore our proposals for a dialogue and respond with repressions," she said.
'Extremely critical situation'
The election protests were galvanized by a brutal crackdown during the first few days, when police detained nearly 7,000 people. Hundreds were injured when officers dispersed peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs.
Those detained and then released recounted details of beatings and abuse while arrested, some showing scars on their bodies to reporters and photographers.
As crowds of protesters swelled amid public outrage, the authorities backed off and let demonstrations go unhindered. However, the authorities again beefed up police cordons around the city since last week and threatened opposition activists with criminal charges.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country currently holds the European Union's presidency, said during a visit to Ukraine on Monday that "the extremely critical situation in Belarus can only be solved through an inclusive dialogue locally."
Maas urged Lukashenko to "recognize the reality on the streets of his country but also the reality in the heads of the people in this country."
He said that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would be the right format to "initiate this dialogue." He said German officials were calling on Russia to use what influence it has with Lukashenko "to make clear to him that he can no longer get past this dialogue."
LISTEN l Belarusian journalist says extent of protests unprecedented:
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Russia hasn't had any contacts with the Belarusian opposition, noting that such a move would amount to meddling in a neighbour's internal affairs.
"We consider it wrong and have no intention to do so, at least not during the current `hot' stage," Peskov said.
Russia and Belarus have a union treaty envisaging close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko said he secured Putin's promise to provide security assistance, if need be.
The Belarusian leader has sought to rally Moscow's support by trying to cast his foes as anti-Russia, although the protesters in Belarus have not displayed anti-Russia slogans.