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Belarus: Demonstrations continue after mass arrests and live-fire threats

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Elderly women hold flowers during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.
Elderly women hold flowers during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Belarus authorities said they arrested 713 people during protests on Sunday and warned that live ammunition could be used against further demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko.

In a statement, the country's interior ministry said that 570 of those arrested in the biggest crackdown in weeks on protesters were yet to appear before a judge.

It also said that police would use live ammunition “if necessary” to quell protests, which it said were becoming "organised and extremely radical."

But the comments did not deter protesters, who turned out in force on Monday to show their anger with the 26-year-rule of Lukashenko and his re-election on August 9.

It was the older generation of Belarussians who took to the streets of Minsk, carrying signs that said "Grandmothers stand with the people."

Protests have been taking place since Lukashenko was announced as the victor of the country's presidential election. Lukashenko's critics say the vote was rigged in his favour.

After initially cracking down hard on the protests, jailing thousands and being accused of widespread torture and mistreatment of prisoners, Belarusian authorities stepped back as demonstrations in cities across the country continued to simmer.

But on Sunday, police returned to violently repressing protests, deploying water cannons and stun grenades against the crowd, arresting dozens.

The ministry said security forces “will not leave the streets and will use, if necessary, special equipment and combat weapons” to stop protests that are “becoming more radical”.

'An emotional leader'

While Lukashenko has used threats of lethal force in the past, people may take his word more seriously this time, according to Katia Glod, a political risk consultant and former election observer in Belarus.

“Now people take his word more seriously than before, he is well known as an emotional leader who uses words to scare people, rather than use the tactics that he threatens,” she told Euronews.

“But after the unprecedented violence we have seen, people are obviously more worried about his words materialising than they were before.”

Even before the election, when he was under pressure from the popularity of the opposition figures - all of whom are now either in custody or in exile - Lukashenko had referenced a massacre in Uzbekistan as a warning.

The 2005 Andijan Massacre - in which several hundred people are thought to have been killed by security forces - was cited by the Belarusian president as an example of what happens when people do not obey their ruler.

But Glod says it is “hard to say” if security forces will really use live ammunition against protesters.

“It’s probably used as a threat, an attempt to stop the protests which currently pose the biggest danger to Lukashenko,” she said.

On Monday the European Union said it was ready to sanction Lukashenko over his repression of protesters, having not included him in its initial set of sanctions.

This, says Glod, was a mistake.

“The escalation of the violence we have seen since 9 August, that clearly shows the sanctions that have been imposed by EU, UK, US, Canada have not produced the desired effect,” she said.

“The sanctions need to be far larger and cover all officials responsible for human rights abuses,” which she said must include not only Lukashenko and his inner circle, but also the rank and file members of the security forces who are responsible for carrying out human rights abuses that have been witnessed in the past two months.

Almost all opposition figures are in detention or exile abroad and last week the authorities cancelled the accreditations of all foreign media, hampering coverage of demonstrations.