Putin Ready To Negotiate With Ukraine, Says  Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council via teleconference call, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, Russia, on February 11, 2022. Alexey NIKOLSKY / Sputnik / AFP
In this file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council via teleconference call, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, Russia, on February 11, 2022. Alexey NIKOLSKY / Sputnik / AFP

 

The Kremlin on Friday said President Vladimir Putin was ready to send a delegation to Belarus for talks with Ukraine, as Russian forces approached Kyiv on the second day of Moscow’s invasion.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian leader was “ready” to send a high-level delegation “for talks with a Ukrainian delegation” to Belarusian capital Minsk, which has previously hosted rounds of peace talks over the Ukraine crisis.

He said Putin’s ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, told him that he would “create the conditions” for such a summit.

Russia has thousands of troops stationed in Belarus, and Ukraine said it was being attacked from several sides — including from Belarus.

READ ALSO: Retaliatory Measures Will Follow Against Western Sanctions – Kremlin

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had repeatedly called for talks with the Russian leader during a weeks-long diplomatic push in which Western countries tried to deter Putin from launching an attack.

Hours before Putin announced he was sending troops to Ukraine, Zelensky said he tried to call the Kremlin chief but “there was no answer, only silence”.

As Russian troops closed in on Kyiv on Friday, Zelensky issued a new statement urging talks.

“I would like to address the President of the Russian Federation once again. Fighting is going on all over Ukraine. Let’s sit down at the negotiating table to stop the deaths of people,” he said.

Putin announced the start of a military operation against Ukraine in the hourly hours of Thursday when Moscow was asleep.

He did so after recognising two pro-Moscow separatist republics in eastern Ukraine as independent.

The West has imposed a barrage of international sanctions on Moscow in response, but Ukraine has said it should do more.

AFP

Migrant Crisis: Belarus Threatens To Cut Off Gas Supply To Europe

 This combination created of file pictures on November 10, 2021 shows the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (L, on November 12, 2019 in Vienna) and Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (on June 24, 2021 in Brussels). JOE KLAMAR, JOHN THYS / AFP
This combination created of file pictures on November 10, 2021 shows the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (L, on November 12, 2019 in Vienna) and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (on June 24, 2021 in Brussels). JOE KLAMAR, JOHN THYS / AFP

 

Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday threatened to cut off gas to Europe in retaliation for any new sanctions imposed over the migrant crisis on his country’s border with EU member Poland.

“If they impose additional sanctions on us… we must respond,” Lukashenko told government officials in comments released by the presidency.

“We are warming Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said, pointing out that Russia’s Yamal-Europe pipeline transits through Belarus to Poland.

“And what if we halt natural gas supplies?”

READ ALSO: Hundreds Of Migrants Trapped In Belarus-Poland Border Standoff

Lukashenko also claimed that migrants on the border had been receiving weapons and explosives from conflict-riven eastern Ukraine for the past two days.

“Why are weapons coming here? They want to stage a provocation,” Lukashenko said, adding that the Belarusian military should be vigilant.

Migrants have been trying to cross the Belarus-Poland border for months but the crisis reached a new level when hundreds made a concerted effort this week and were pushed back by Polish borders guards.

Western governments accuse Lukashenko’s government of luring them to his country and sending them to cross into Poland in retaliation for previous sanctions over Minsk’s crackdown on the opposition.

On Wednesday, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would hit Belarus with fresh sanctions next week over the crisis.

Poland has accused Minsk of “state terrorism” for using intimidation to force migrants to breach the border.

Belarus has in turn accused Poland of violating international norms by blocking the migrants and beating them back with violence.

Lukashenko said there were a lot of children and pregnant women among the refugees, adding they should receive necessary help.

“There are a lot of women who are eight or nine months pregnant,” he said. “When they are due of course we’ll take them to the hospital and look after them further.”

AFP

Belarus Bans Journalists From Covering Mass Protests

Young men and a woman wear the Belarus flag as passengers disembark from a Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities, after it landed at Vilnius International Airport, its initial destination, on May 23, 2021. PHOTO: PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP

 

Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Monday approved legislation that would ban reporters from providing real-time coverage of unauthorised mass events, piling huge pressure on independent journalists.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, signed off on these and other controversial amendments as his regime face global fury over the forced diversion of a European plane with Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich onboard on Sunday.

The amendments to the law on media and mass events ban reporters from taking part in or organising an unauthorised mass event and providing live coverage of such events.

Any Belarusian national — not just a journalist — is banned from covering an unauthorised rally and using crowdfunding to pay fines over the violation of legislation on mass gatherings, according to the amendments published by state media.

READ ALSO: Taiwan Blames China For Latest WHO Meeting Snub

The publication of results of independent polls will also not be allowed.

Belarus was gripped by months of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations that erupted after a disputed presidential election last August saw Lukashenko claim a sixth term in office.

Belarusian security forces unleashed a harsh crackdown against the protests, detaining demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile. Several people have died in the unrest.

A campaign to muzzle independent media followed, with dozens of journalists already receiving jail terms for covering opposition events.

Lukashenko critics say that the amended legislation legalises the crackdown on independent journalism in the ex-Soviet country.

“Major opportunities have opened up for the eradication of what’s been left of independent media,” Boris Goretsky, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told AFP.

According to the association, nearly 30 journalists are currently behind bars in Belarus.

The Interior Ministry on Monday published a list of “extremist” Telegram channels including Nexta, which galvanised and coordinated huge protests against Lukashenko.

Journalist and activist Protasevich, who was detained in Minsk on Sunday following the diversion of his Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair flight, is a co-founder of Nexta and its former editor.

AFP

Belarus Protesters Take To The Streets With New Tactic

Opposition supporters hold former white-red-white flags of Belarus as they gather to protest against police violence and the Belarus presidential election results in Minsk, on November 29, 2020.  STRINGER / AFP

 

 

Opposition protesters in Belarus took to the streets of the capital Minsk on Sunday in the latest of three months of demonstrations against the re-election of strongman president Alexander Lukashenko.

Since an August election, Belarus has been gripped by massive protests that erupted after Lukashenko, 66, secured a sixth term as president of the ex-Soviet republic.

The opposition believes the election was rigged and political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — who ran against Lukashenko in the place of her jailed husband — was the true winner of the polls.

In recent weeks, authorities imposed an intense crackdown in which hundreds were detained and protesters were prevented from gathering in central Minsk.

That prompted Lukashenko’s opponents to change tactic, calling on supporters to create small gatherings in every district of the capital.

Dmitry Golubev, a 20-year-old student, told AFP that he was rallying for “fair elections, Lukashenko’s resignation and the release of political prisoners”.

“We are not evil people, not foreign agents…, we are citizens of Belarus, who want peace, calm and respect for human rights in their country,” Golubev said, holding a red and white flag — a symbol of the Belarus opposition.

According to local media, around 20 rallies were recorded on Sunday across the city.

“Large columns of people have assembled in all districts of Minsk, without exception. The Lukashenko police are desperately rushing from district to district,” said opposition Telegram channel Nexta Live that has helped coordinate the ongoing demonstrations.

As in previous weeks, several metro stations in the city centre were shut and mobile connection was limited.

Riot police were deployed in large numbers, with the Tut.by news website reporting the use of stun grenades and tear gas.

Minsk police said on Sunday that around 250 people were taken into police custody during the protests in the capital.

“Everyone takes to the streets in their district and sees dozens, hundreds and thousands of supporters,” Tikhanovskaya, 38, said in a video address posted on her Telegram channel on Saturday.

READ ALSO: Suicide Car Bomb Kills 26 Afghan Security Personnel

She added that Belarusians are a “proud, brave and peaceful people that have learned the price of freedom and will never agree to live without it”.

Tikhanovskaya fled to EU member Lithuania shortly after the August vote and has received support from several Western leaders, who refuse to recognise the election results.

The European Union has slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and a number of his allies over election rigging and a violent crackdown on demonstrators.

Belarus police detained thousands of protesters in the first days of the demonstrations, with many reporting torture and abuse in custody.

Lukashenko, who has the firm backing of Moscow, has refused to step down and instead has suggested reforms to the constitution to placate the opposition.

AFP

Belarus Opposition Leader Meets EU to urge sanctions

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya addresses members of parliament at the EU headquarters in Brussels on September 21, 2020. – European foreign ministers welcomed Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to Brussels as they prepare EU sanctions to support her battle against the Minsk regime. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

 

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Monday urged the EU to show courage and step up its support for her movement, as the bloc’s internal squabbles about sanctions rolled on.

The former Soviet republic has been convulsed by unprecedented demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko since he was returned to power in a disputed August 9 election and launched a brutal crackdown.

Tikhanovskaya met EU foreign ministers in Brussels and urged them to sanction Lukashenko but, despite repeated statements condemning the veteran strongman and warning of measures, after 44 days the bloc has yet to act.

“Sanctions are very important in our fight, because sanctions is part of pressure that will force the so-called authorities to start dialogue with us,” she told reporters.

“I think leaders have reasons not to push for these sanctions but at this meeting I asked just to be more brave in their decisions.”

Cyprus, which has good relations with Lukashenko’s key supporter Russia, has blocked EU agreement on measures against Belarus, insisting that sanctions against Turkey over a maritime gas drilling dispute must be agreed at the same time.

Nicosia’s position has support from some EU countries but the patience of others is wearing thin, with one diplomat on Friday saying Cyprus was effectively “shielding” Lukashenko.

As he arrived, Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides said the EU must maintain a coherent response to violations of sovereignty and human rights.

“Our reaction to any kind of violation of our core basic values and principles, cannot be a la carte. It needs to be consistent,” he said.

– ‘Sanction Lukashenko’ –

After the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters the ministers had been “really impressed by the courage and perseverance of the Belarusian people, especially Belarusian women who show a real sense of leadership”.

He said the EU would support an inclusive national dialogue in Belarus and reiterated that Brussels does not recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president.

The EU and other Western powers have rejected the result of the election, saying the poll was not free and fair, and Brussels has drawn up a list of around 40 members of Lukashenko’s regime to hit with asset freezes and travel bans.

But with ministers still deadlocked, the matter will be taken up by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, with diplomats hoping they will find a way to agree both sets of sanctions.

“We have to conclude that nothing has improved in the last weeks. The violence Lukashenko has used against peaceful demonstrators is totally unacceptable,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

“We must also address the question of whether Mr Lukashenko, who is the main responsible, should not also be sanctioned by the European Union,” he said.

The strongman, who has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century, has responded to the protests with a security clampdown and turned to his longstanding ally Russia for help.

Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania for her own safety after the election, backed sanctions on Lukashenko himself, saying “of course I think it is necessary”.

And she urged the EU to make a formal call for new elections — something it has so far held off from, despite rejecting the August 9 poll as illegitimate.

The ministers are also considering what finance could be given to civil society in Belarus, after Poland called for a billion-euro stabilisation fund to help the country.

But Tikhanovskaya warned care must be taken to ensure the money does not end up in Lukashenko’s coffers, effectively funding him to carry out further repression.

Tikhanovskaya’s meeting with EU ministers, followed by an appearance at the European Parliament, is part of her effort to maintain international pressure on Lukashenko as he clings to power.

On Friday she urged the international community to respond to abuses in Belarus “in the strongest terms” in a video appearance at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that was repeatedly interrupted by the Belarusian ambassador.

AFP

UN Steps Up Pressure Over Belarus Violence

(FILES) In this file photo, The United Nations flag is seen during the Climate Action Summit 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly Hall on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

 

Torture allegations against Belarusian security forces during a recent crackdown on protesters must be investigated, the UN rights chief said on Monday, turning up the pressure on strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

Michelle Bachelet said there were hundreds of allegations of torture or ill-treatment, including of children, stemming from the response to protests over the disputed re-election of Lukashenko as president of Belarus.

“Given their scale and number, all allegations of torture and other forms of ill-treatment by the security forces should be documented and investigated, with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice,” she said during the opening of the UN Human Rights Council, which has agreed to hold an urgent debate.

Unprecedented demonstrations broke out in Belarus after Lukashenko claimed to have defeated opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with 80 percent of the vote on August 9.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 26 years, has refused to step down and has turned to neighbouring Russia for support to remain in power.

His security forces have detained thousands of protesters, many of whom have accused police of beatings and torture. Several people have died in the crackdown.

– Rare council debate –

Bachelet said there were reports of sexual violence, abductions of people associated with the opposition and targeting of journalists.

“There has been limited evidence of any steps by the authorities to address these reports,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said.

“Re-establishing social peace in Belarus requires far-reaching dialogue, reforms and accountability for grave human rights violations.”

The council has agreed to a European Union proposal to host a rare urgent debate on Friday over the deteriorating situation.

In presenting the request, German ambassador Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg pointed to reports of “unprecedented attacks on, and torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of peaceful protesters as well as harassment, intimidation and detentions of opposition leaders”.

“The situation on the ground clearly warrants an urgent debate. The Human Rights Council should not stay silent on this matter,” he said.

However, Belarusian ambassador Yury Ambrazevich slammed the proposal as a “manipulation of the council” that “has nothing to do with human rights”, but is merely aimed at exerting political pressure on Belarus.

Friday’s debate will mark only the sixth time in the council’s 14-year history that it has agreed to hold an urgent debate, which is a special debate agreed upon within a regular session of the council.

During its last session in June, the council held an urgent debate over racism and police brutality following unrest in the United States and beyond over George Floyd’s death.

ADP

Belarus Leader Replaces Security Chiefs As Russia PM Visits

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (L), Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (C) and Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko pose ahead of their meeting at the Independence Palace in Minsk on September 3, 2020. – Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin Mishustin arrived on September 3 for a working visit to the Belarusian capital to hold talks with the country’s authorities. Alexander Astafyev / Sputnik / AFP.

 

Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday replaced his security chiefs and said progress was being made on plans to bring Moscow and Minsk closer.

Lukashenko, who is under huge pressure from protesters to step down after last month’s disputed election, replaced the heads of the KGB security service, the security council and the state control committee.

The reshuffle was announced during the visit of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who became the most senior Moscow official to make a public visit to Belarus since the political crisis broke out over disputed polls on August 9.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets for weeks in unprecedented protests against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

The moustachioed leader has refused to quit and has instead sought support from the Kremlin.

In recent years the Kremlin has pushed for closer economic and political integration between the two ex-Soviet countries but Lukashenko has so far resisted outright unification.

On Thursday, he indicated he might be open to bringing the nations closer.

“We agreed” on issues on which Russia and Belarus “could not agree earlier,” Lukashenko told Mishustin, adding that opposition protests were a “lesson” for the two countries.

“This lesson prompted us to make relevant conclusions,” he said.

Lukashenko added he planned to “dot all the i’s on issues that are very sensitive and delicate for the two states” when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in the next few weeks.

Mishustin, who arrived with a large delegation in tow, hailed plans to tighten up ties.

“We see progress on many issues,” he told Lukashenko, adding their future “union state” will help remove “unnecessary” trade barriers.

Belarus, an ex-Soviet state sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, has for years relied on Moscow for cheap oil and loans.

The two have formed a nominal “union” with close trade and military cooperation but the Kremlin has sought deeper integration.

London-based analyst Mark Galeotti suggested that the reshuffle indicated that the replacement of KGB chief Valery Vakulchik with Ivan Tertel, who until now headed the state control committee, had been done under pressure from Moscow.

“Ex-KGB chief Vakulchik had been a fierce guardian against Moscow penetration,” he tweeted, adding Tertel had a better relationship with Russia’s FSB security service.

AFP

Putin Vows Military Support For Belarus’ Lukashenko

RUSSIA-VIRUS-HEALTH
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation via teleconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on May 11, 2020. – President Vladimir Putin on May 11, 2020 said Russia’s non-working period imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus will be lifted from May 12. (Photo by Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP)

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed military support for embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday, while urging a peaceful resolution to unrest and demonstrations that erupted after a disputed election.

EU ambassadors in the capital Minsk on Thursday denounced a crackdown on the opposition in the wake of the presidential poll, in which 65-year-old Lukashenko claimed a landslide reelection with some 80 percent of the vote.

The Belarusian strongman’s relationship with Putin had soured ahead of the August 9 ballot because Minsk refused closer integration with Russia — and even claimed Moscow had sent mercenaries across the border to organise riots.

Yet Putin on Thursday promised military backing for Belarus and said Russia had set up a reserve group of law enforcement officers to deploy if the post-vote situation deteriorated.

“It won’t be used unless the situation starts to get out of control,” Putin said, unless “extremist elements … begin setting fire to cars, houses and banks, begin seizing administrative buildings”.

But Putin also called on the authorities in Minsk and the opposition to “find a way out” of the crisis peacefully.

He conceded there were problems in Belarus, saying, “otherwise people wouldn’t take to the streets”.

The Russian leader’s calls for calm came after the European Union and ambassadors of member states in Minsk condemned a crackdown on government critics seeking new elections and Lukashenko’s resignation.

– ‘Unacceptable’ prosecution –

The opposition created a Coordination Council to oversee the peaceful transition of power after their leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania fearing reprisals.

Lukashenko ordered a criminal probe into the opposition’s attempts to “seize power” and several of the presidium’s members have been detained or summoned for questioning.

Maria Kolesnikova, an aide of Tikhanovskaya and member of the council, was summoned by investigators for questioning on Thursday. She said she invoked her right not to testify against herself.

The group’s most prominent member, Nobel Prize-winning author and outspoken government critic Svetlana Alexievich, was questioned by investigators on Wednesday and also refused to answer questions.

Two of the presidium’s members this week were sentenced to 10 days each in police detention for organising unsanctioned rallies and disobeying law enforcement orders.

“The European diplomats emphasised that prosecution of Coordination Council members on grounds presented by the authorities is unacceptable,” a joint statement said.

EU nations have also vowed to sanction individuals they say were involved in vote-rigging and the violent crackdown on protesters.

The EU ambassadors in Minsk on Thursday said that: “Belarusians are asking for an open dialogue with their own authorities about the future of their country,” urging “a peaceful and democratic process, underpinned by independent and free media and a strong civil society”.

– ‘Diplomatic war’ –

Lukashenko has dismissed calls to resign or host new elections, instead accusing Western countries and Russia of stirring political unrest.

The authoritarian leader on Thursday said the ex-Soviet country’s European neighbours had declared a “diplomatic war” and were meddling in Belarus’s internal affairs.

Last week he described demonstrators as “rats” in a video that showed him carrying an assault rifle, after more than 100,000 people took to the streets to demand he stand down.

His notorious security services rounded up nearly 7,000 participants in peaceful rallies that erupted in the days after the vote, and hundreds of detainees claimed they were abused by police in custody.

Local and international rights groups have urged the UN to investigate allegations of systematic torture at the hands of security services.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political newcomer who ran in place of her jailed husband, called for historic demonstrations and mass strikes following the election.

Workers at state-owned factories initially downed tools and joined the walk-outs in large numbers, but fewer employees have kept up participation due to pressure from the authorities, activists have said.

Industry Minister Pyotr Parkhomchik said Thursday that there were no ongoing strikes and that “all assembly lines have been restarted.”

AFP

Emergency EU Summit On Belarus Crisis Begins

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology

 

EU leaders held an emergency video summit Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Belarus, as the country’s exiled opposition chief urged them to reject President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election.

France, Germany and EU Council President Charles Michel have all urged Lukashenko’s close ally Russia to push for dialogue to end the crisis peacefully, after security services brutally broke up peaceful demonstrations calling for the long-ruling strongman to quit.

The EU is already working on a new round of sanctions against Belarus, targeting those involved in allegedly fixing the August 9 vote and in the bloody repression of protests, which have shaken Lukashenko’s grip on the ex-Soviet republic as never before.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his country could intervene in the crisis and this week warned against “unacceptable” foreign interference in Belarus or pressure on its leadership.

As the meeting began, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the EU “cannot accept the result of these elections” and called for “resolute and concerted” action.

“Our message to the regime is clear: violence is unacceptable, political prisoners must be released and human rights must be respected,” he tweeted.

“Dialogue must lead to a solution that reflects the vote of the people.”

Lukashenko’s claim to victory in the election with 80 percent of the ballot sparked the largest demonstrations in Belarus since it gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after claiming victory in the vote, called on EU leaders “not to recognise these fraudulent elections”.

The summit is also expected to address fast-moving events in Mali, where a military coup to oust President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was swiftly followed by a pledge from its leaders to hold elections soon.

The EU’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell issued a statement late Tuesday condemning the coup and rejecting “all unconstitutional change”, saying it could not provide a lasting solution to Mali’s myriad economic, political and security problems.

AFP

Belarus Leader Says Putin Offers Help As Pressure Builds

Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko. (Joe Klamar AFP)

 

Vladimir Putin has offered to help ensure Belarus’s security, according to its president Alexander Lukashenko, as pressure builds on the strongman leader and opposition protesters prepare for a show of force Sunday.

Thousands demonstrated in the capital Minsk Saturday after main election challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya asked supporters to rally over the weekend and keep alive a movement that poses the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s hold over the ex-Soviet country.

Many gathered at the spot where Alexander Taraikovsky, 34, died on Monday during protests against an election the opposition says was rigged to give Lukashenko another term in office.

Demonstrators heaped flowers at the spot and the crowd chanted “Thank you!” and raised victory signs. Police kept a low profile.

Many held up photographs of protesters beaten during the crackdown, while one man stood in his underwear revealing the purple bruises on his thighs, buttocks and back.

Later thousands protested outside the Belarusian state television centre, complaining that their broadcasts backed Lukashenko and gave a skewed picture of the protests.

Around 100 staff came out of the building to join the crowd, and said they planned a strike on Monday.

“Like everyone we are demanding free elections and the release of those detained at mass protests,” said one employee, Andrei Yaroshevich.

Riot police later arrived at the centre and blocked off the entrance to the building.

The opposition is planning a major show of force on Sunday with a “March for Freedom” through the streets of central Minsk.

– ‘I’m really afraid’ –

Facing the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power in 1994, Lukashenko called in Moscow’s help and spoke on the phone with Putin Saturday, after warning there was “a threat not only to Belarus”.

He later told military chiefs that Putin had offered “comprehensive help” to “ensure the security of Belarus”.

The Kremlin said the leaders agreed the “problems” in Belarus would be “resolved soon” and the countries’ ties strengthened.

While Lukashenko periodically plays Moscow off against the neighbouring EU, Russia is Belarus’s closest ally and the countries have formed a “union state” linking their economies and militaries.

Lukashenko criticised Russia during his election campaign and Belarus detained 33 Russians on suspicion of planning riots ahead of polls.

Opposition protesters slammed Lukashenko for now seeking Moscow’s aid and said they fear Russian intervention.

“It’s obvious that our president can’t deal with his own people any more, he’s seeking help in the east,” said Alexei Linich, a 27-year-old programmer.

“If Russia intervenes, that would be the worst. I’m really afraid of this,” said Olga Nesteruk, a landscape designer.

– ‘Will not give up the country’ –

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday urged Lukashenko to “engage with civil society”, during a trip to Poland, which has offered to act as a mediator.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other opposition candidates including her husband were jailed, accuses Lukashenko of rigging the vote and has demanded he step down so new elections can be held.

The 65-year-old has ruled Belarus with an iron grip and claims to have won the election with 80 percent of the vote.

Tikhanovskaya left the country on Tuesday for neighbouring Lithuania, with her allies saying she came under official pressure.

She is also demanding authorities be held to account for the crackdown, which saw police use rubber bullets, stun grenades and, in at least one case, live rounds to disperse protesters, with at least 6,700 people detained and hundreds injured.

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including Taraikovsky — who they say died when an explosive device went off in his hand during a protest — and another man who died in custody in the southeastern city of Gomel.

– Call for ‘free and fair’ vote –

On Friday authorities began releasing hundreds of those arrested and many gave horrific accounts of beatings and torture.

European Union ministers have agreed to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions in response to the post-election crackdown.

The leaders of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — on Saturday condemned the crackdown and called for a new vote.

Lukashenko has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled “sheep” and “people with a criminal past who are now unemployed”, repeatedly accusing foreign governments of plotting his downfall.

Tikhanovskaya on Friday announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to “help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities”.

She demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown.

AFP