Belarusian security forces detained dozens of people on Thursday as protesters answered a call by opposition figures to ramp up demonstrations against veteran President Alexander Lukashenko to pressure him to resign.
The rights group Viasna-96 (Spring-96) said at least 45 people had been detained while footage circulated by local media showed isolated incidents of protesters being grabbed or chased down the street by police.
The authorities had moved police buses, water cannon and prisoner vans into the centre of the capital Minsk in anticipation of the protests on the country’s unofficial “Freedom Day”.
Protesters, some carrying red-and-white opposition flags, marched through the streets while cars honked their horns in solidarity.
Lukashenko, 66, has faced the biggest challenge to his nearly 27-year-rule since protesters took to the streets after he was declared the winner of a presidential election last August which they said was rigged.
He denied electoral fraud and police cracked down on the protests, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people before giving way to smaller marches.
Marking the anniversary of Belarus’ 1918 declaration of what was short-lived independence from Russia, exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter: “I call on all friends of Belarus to stand in solidarity with Belarusians on Freedom Day, March 25th.”
“Take political action. Hold/participate in a solidarity rally in your city. Write letters to political prisoners. Post on social media,” she wrote.
Local organisers wanted neighbourhood marches, flash mobs and protest symbols displayed on Thursday evening, but are preparing a larger protest at the weekend.
Fireworks were set off in Minsk on Wednesday at 23.34 local time (2034 GMT) – a reference to an article in the legal code relating to participation in protests.
The government has said it will retaliate against protests.
“These are the absolute enemies of our state …and we will deal with them very quickly,” said Nikolai Karpenkov, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs.
The democratic aspirations of the opposition, whose leading figures are mostly in prison or exile and demand free elections, have been supported by Western countries.
Lukashenko has kept power with the financial and diplomatic backing of Russia which, according to western diplomats, sees Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO. Belarus borders Russia, Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
The crackdown has caused a diplomatic row between Belarus and Poland that accelerated after the arrest of two Poles this week. Warsaw on Thursday threatened new sanctions in retaliation.