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Belarus: Rival protests as Lukashenko claims NATO deployed to border

The embattled Belarusian president says NATO has sent tanks and planes to its western border. Alexander Lukashenko urged supporters to defend the country as tens of thousands of protesters again demanded he steps down.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday accused NATO of deploying tanks and planes to Belarus’ western border, a claim the military alliance rejected.

Speaking at a rally of his supporters in central Minsk, the 65-year-old leader dismissed opposition calls for a new election and urged Belarusians to defend their country.

“I called you here not to defend me, but for the first time in a quarter-century, to defend your country and its independence,” he said to the 3,000 strong crowd, just as tens of thousands of protesters once again hit the streets in several cities demanding his ouster.

Lukashenko appeals to his supporters to defend Belarus

NATO denies build-up

NATO said it was closely monitoring events in Belarus, but denied a military buildup was underway in eastern Europe.

“NATO’s multinational presence in the eastern part of the Alliance is not a threat to any country. It is strictly defensive, proportionate, and designed to prevent conflict and preserve peace,” a NATO spokeswoman said in a statement.

Belarus has been rocked by demonstrations since last Sunday when Lukashenko claimed victory in a presidential election his opponents say was rigged. Two people have died in the protests and thousands have been arrested.

Unrest ’caused by foreign interference’

Lukashenko, who has led the former Soviet state for 26 years, denies election fraud. He says foreign interference is to blame for the unrest. 

“If we kowtow to them, we will go into a tailspin,” he told his supporters. “We will perish as a state, as a people, as a nation.”

“The motherland is in danger!” one speaker told the crowd, as people chanted “We are united,” and waved the national flag.

“I’m for Lukashenko,” Alla Georgievna, 68, told Reuters news agency. “I don’t understand why everyone has risen up against him. We get our pensions and salaries on time thanks to him.”

Anti-government protesters marched down Minsk’s Independence Avenue following an opposition call for the biggest rally yet

Opposition marches draw huge crowds

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of opposition supporters were holding a nationwide “March for Freedom” to renew pressure on Lukashenko to step down. 

Columns of protesters raised victory signs and held flowers and balloons. Many wore white, the color that has come to symbolize the opposition movement. 

Demonstrators held placards with slogans such as “We are against violence” and “Lukashenko must answer for the torture and dead.”

At a war memorial where the march was to culminate, an AFP journalist estimated that up to 100,000 people had gathered.

DW’s Moscow correspondent Emily Sherwin tweeted that there are signs that the state TV channel could flout government control after several high-profile staff resigned.

Russia offers security assistance

Earlier on Sunday, Russia said it had offered Belarus military assistance if necessary. Moscow also said external pressure was being applied to the country, but did not say where from.

Lukashenko told state TV he would move an air assault brigade to Belarus’ western border. According to the RIA news agency, the Belarusian army also plans to hold weeklong drills to strengthen the country’s borders with Poland and Lithuania starting on Monday.  

EU sanctions to target ‘specific’ officials

The European Union says the presidential vote was neither free nor fair, and is preparing to impose sanctions over the post-election crackdown.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the sanctions are designed to target specific individuals.

“This is not about economic sanctions, which would primarily affect the Belarusian population, but we as the EU want to punish specific individuals proven to have been involved in rigging the election and violence against demonstrators,” Maas said.

nm/mm (Reuters, AFP) (DW)