The army could be drafted in to protect war monuments, Belarus’ minister of defense warned Sunday as tens of thousands of people attended a rally in the country’s capital to demonstrate against the disputed presidential election.
“We are strictly warning in case of disruption of the order and tranquility in these places, you will be dealing not with the police, but with the army,” Viktor Krenin said in a video statement posted on the Ministry of Defense’s official channel on the Telegram messaging application.
Thousands of memorials and monuments had been created across the country “as a sign of remembrance, sorrow and sadness,” after World War II, he said. “They are sacred for us.”
His comments came as tens thousands of people gathered in the capital Minsk to protest against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who declared victory in the presidential election with 80 percent of the vote, earlier this month.
Since then, there have been widespread demonstrations with at least two protesters killed and thousands detained, although many were later released. Dozens of protesters and police officers have also been injured.
Lukshenko has been condemned by a number of world leaders for the violent crackdown on protesters.
There have been no reports of war monuments being defaced at previous protest rallies.
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The majority of protests in the capital took place in the centre of the city, where there are numerous historically significant monuments.
Lukashenko’s opponents say the election was rigged to disguise the fact that he has lost public support and that his main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was actually victorious — a claim he refutes.
Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher, emerged from obscurity several months ago after her husband was prevented from running and thrown in jail. She has fled to Lithuania for security reasons.
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She has since spoken out of her exile in a series of video messages, encouraging people to keep peaceful protests and labor strikes going.
Last weekend, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets of Minsk in a peaceful demonstration against the government.
And on Saturday, hundreds of women dressed in white formed a human chain in Minsk as a sign of protest.
“Threats, intimidation, blocking no longer work. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians are telling him ’go away″ from all corners and squares,” Anna Skuratovich, one of the women in the chain, told the Associated Press.
Another demonstration in the evening was attended by 3,000 people, the AP reported.
Tsikhanouskaya is expected to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in Lithuania on Monday, her team told Reuters Saturday.
Lukashenko, who has blamed foreign powers, including the United States, for the protests, threatened to close factories where strikes continue on Saturday.
“People are tired,” he said at a rally of several thousand supporters in Grodno in western Belarus on Saturday, state media agency Belta reported, as he once again stoked fears of a foreign intervention. “They want a peaceful life.”
The president has repeatedly said NATO was deploying forces near Belarus’ western border. The alliance firmly denies that claim.
Last week he held a series of phone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has so far not intervened in the country’s political crisis, but has promised assistance under a mutual security treaty.
Meanwhile, the European Union is preparing sanctions against Belorussian officials, while the U.S. has called the election “neither free nor fair.”
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.