Embattled Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has been booed off stage by angry workers while visiting a factory in the capital Minsk to rally support for his crumbling leadership.
- Mr Lukashenko told workers: “There will be no new election until you kill me.”
- He warned growing strikes would ruin the economy
- Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says she is ready to lead Belarus
Mr Lukashenko is struggling to contain a wave of mass protests and strikes that pose the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule of the country.
His opponents say he rigged the August 9 presidential election to secure a sixth term in power. Official results showed him winning just over 80 per cent of the vote.
Mr Lukashenko flew by helicopter to the factory where he attempted to give a rousing speech.
But he was met by angry workers chanting: “Go away!” and “Step down!”.
“I will never cave in to pressure,” he told the workers.
“Some of you might have got the impression that the Government no longer exists, that it has tumbled down,” the 65-year-old former state farm director shouted.
“The Government will never collapse, you know me well.
“There will be no new election until you kill me.”
He said the demonstrators had been “poisoned by social networks,” but vaguely suggested he was open for discussions on constitutional reforms in an apparent bid to stem the protests.
As he spoke, more than 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Plant marched down the streets of the city, joining workers from an increasing number of state-controlled factories walking off the job.
Some police, journalists from state media, and a sitting ambassador have also supported the protesters.
Opposition leader calls for new election laws
The country’s Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she was ready to lead Belarus if Mr Lukashenko stood down.
Speaking in a video address from Lithuania, she called for the creation of a legal mechanism to ensure a new, fair presidential election could be held.
She also urged security and police officers to support her, saying they would be pardoned if they did so.
Her video was released a day after Belarusians chanting “Step down” filled the centre of the capital Minsk in the biggest anti-government protest so far.
“I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period, so the country can settle down and get back to normality, so that we can release all political prisoners and prepare a legal framework and conditions to hold a new round of presidential elections quickly,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said, adding it was essential to make the most of the momentum generated by a week of protests.
The former English teacher has become one of the leading opposition figures against Mr Lukashenko.
She fled to neighbouring Lithuania last week, saying she had done so for the safety of her children, but quickly began releasing new videos calling for anti-government protests to continue.
‘No reasons for military support from Russia’
Russia is watching particularly closely, as Belarus hosts pipelines that carry Russian gas to the West, and is viewed by Moscow as a buffer zone against NATO.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told Mr Lukashenko that Moscow was ready to assist Belarus in accordance with a collective military pact if necessary and that external pressure was being applied to the country, although it did not say where from.
Any suggestion of Russian military intervention in the protests was met with strong opposition from Lithuania, the former Soviet-occupied nation that borders Belarus to the north-west.
The Baltic state’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Linas Linkevicius, said if Russian troops got involved it would constitute “an invasion”, and undermine any trace of Belarusian independence.
“There are no reasons for military support from Russia, and no legal or other grounds for it,” Mr Linkevicius told reporters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
“Russia would risk a lot if it did it, in the face of what is going on in Belarus, in the face of the popular support. It should figure out that an invasion would not be justified, neither legally, nor morally, nor politically.”
Meanwhile, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged the Belarusian military “not to sin against their own people by using force” against protesters.
Mr Steinmeier, who said he admired the demonstrators’ courage, urged Mr Lukashenko to seek dialogue with them and said the people in Belarus deserved solidarity and support.