European Council President Charles Michel on Monday convened an emergency summit of EU leaders to discuss the presidential election in Belarus and the crackdown in the wake of the polls.
Noting that the video conference would take place on Wednesday at 1000 GMT, Michel tweeted that “the people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader.”
“Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed,” he said.
The 27 EU foreign ministers said on Friday that the elections were neither free nor fair and that they refuse to accept the results of the polls, as announced by the Belarus electoral commission.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Several thousand factory workers took to the streets of Minsk on Monday, demanding the resignation of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. It was the ninth straight day of protesting against the results of an election that extended his 26-year rule.
Nearly 5,000 workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant, which has been on strike since Monday morning, marched down the streets of Minsk, demanding that Lukashenko step down and cede his post to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate.
The official results of the Aug. 9 vote gave Lukashenko 80% of the votes and Tsikhanouskaya only 10%, but the opposition claimed the vote was rigged.
“Lukashenko is a former president, he needs to go,” Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest at the Minsk Tractor Works plant, told The Associated Press on Monday. “Sveta (Tsikhanouskaya) is our president, legitimate and elected by the people.”
Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, entered the race after her husband’s jailing in Belarus. She managed to galvanize nationwide support, drawing tens of thousands to her campaign rallies.
Large-scale protests against the vote results continued even after she left the country for Lithuania last week, a move her campaign said was made under duress. The protests have posed the biggest challenge yet to Lukashenko's iron-fisted rule of the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million.
Belarusian authorities initially tried to suppress the rallies, detaining almost 7,000 people in the first days of the protests. Police moved aggressively, using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, injuring scores of people.
However, as protests grew and the harsh crackdown drew criticism in the West, law enforcement refrained from interfering with the crowds and appeared all but absent during a rally on Sunday that attracted some 200,000 people.
Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement Monday she was ready to facilitate a rerun of the disputed election.
“I'm ready to take on the responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down, return to its normal rhythm, in order for us to free all the political prisoners and prepare legislation and conditions for organizing new presidential elections,” she said.
Lukashenko bristled at the idea of talks with the opposition, insisting his government was the only legitimate one, and rejected the idea of repeating the election at a rally in his support on Sunday. The embattled president told a crowd of 50,000 that the country would “perish as a state” otherwise, and denounced the protesters as stooges of foreign masterminds.
Lukashenko visited another tractor plant on Monday and dismissed the strikes as insignificant. “So, 150 (people) at some factory, even 200 don't make a difference," the president was quoted as saying by the state Belta news agency.
Thousands of workers from several other plants in the meantime gathered outside, shouting “We're not sheep, we're people," and “Strike!”
Maria Kolesnikova, Tsikhanouskaya's top associate, attended the gathering and said that “only the former president (Lukashenko) stepping down will calm the nation down."
First Published: IST