Belarus police detained at least 250 protesters as tens of thousands demonstrated in the capital Minsk in advance of talks between strongman Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Security forces dressed in riot gear used barbed wire to seal off the central square in the capital.
“Some 250 people were detained in various districts of the capital,” the interior ministry said in a statement, adding those arrested were carrying flags and “offensive” placards.
Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk was fenced off with barbed wire with armed law enforcement forces seen behind it. Independence Square was also fenced off.
Demonstrators were heading towards the Palace of Independence, President Lukashenko’s residence.
“Soldiers rounded us up in several circles, people were selectively pulled out of the crowd and beaten,” one unidentified demonstrator told Reuters news agency.
Lukashenko – in power for 26 years – is facing a groundswell of public anger after declaring a landslide win in last month’s presidential election that his opponents say was rigged. He denies the allegations.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting by phone from Minsk, said the internet was blocked and security forces had been making it extremely hard for protesters to gather.
Yet, she said tens of thousands rallied in the centre of the capital, although at different locations than initially planned.
An Al Jazeera cameraman was briefly detained and nearly dragged into a van but escaped, Vaessen reported.
“Vans of masked policemen are driving around the city at high speed, stopping and snatching people from the street,” she said. “It is very clear that the strategy today is to clamp down on any more moving towards the Sunday rally.”
On Saturday, at least 5,000 people marched through the city demanding the release of a jailed opposition leader in the latest wave of mass protests after the August 9 presidential vote.
Key opposition figures of Belarus have been either jailed or forced out of the country. Lukashenko will visit Russia for talks with Putin on Monday as both countries start joint military drills.
Vaessen said Lukashenko’s meeting with Putin was crucial. “He wants to show that he has these protests under control, and images of very large gatherings are not something that he wants to see today.”
She said the government and demonstrators were digging in and neither wants to compromise.
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“It’s a complete standoff. Lukashenko has repeated again and again that he is not willing to step down. People here are also not willing to stop the process because they have started something they are calling the ‘awakening of Belarus’. After so many years, 26 years of dictatorship, they have passed the point where they can accept it any more.”
Peter Zalmayev from the Eurasia Democracy Initiative said the monthlong mass rallies each Sunday are single in their purpose, the removal of Lukashenko and his “iron-fisted rule”.
“The one goal the protesters have is to get rid of the guy and they’re doing it in a spectacularly democratic fashion with no single leader, with the leadership dispersed, and with a true popular uprising the likes of which Belarus has never witnessed,” Zalmayev told Al Jazeera.
He said the only reason Lukashenko was “hanging on” was because of the loyalty of his security forces.
“The big unknown is Vladimir Putin who has sent contradictory signals. From what we have seen, he is unwilling to contemplate a victory by a street protest, which would create a very unpleasant precedent for Russia and for Putin’s rule,” said Zalmayev.
Al Jazeera and news agencies