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Russian Forces Prepared to Help Belarus, Putin Says

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Aug. 25, 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia has prepared a contingent of law enforcement officers that could be sent to Belarus "if necessary" to restore order in the event of "looting" amid continuing postelection protests.

Putin made the comments in a surprise interview aired on the state channel Rossia on August 27.

"Russian forces won't be used unless extremist elements in Belarus cross the line and begin acts of looting," Putin said.

The Russian president also said that he believed "Belarusian law enforcement agencies are demonstrating fairly reserved behavior, no matter what."

Putin's comments came as Belarusian authorities continue to crack down on demonstrations against the August 9 presidential election won by longtime authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Protesters, who believe the election was rigged, have faced a brutal police crackdown, with widespread evidence of beatings and torture in police custody. Leading opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya says at least six people have been killed in the crackdown and dozens of protesters have gone missing after being detained by authorities.

As the protests entered their 19th day, Belarusian prosecutors continued to question leading opposition figures as part of what Minsk calls a "criminal investigation" into the opposition's recently formed Coordination Council.

Maryya Kalesnikava, a senior member of exiled opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya's Coordination Council, was summoned to the headquarters of the Belarusian Investigative Committee for questioning on August 27.

The head of the Belarusian Constitutional Court has declared that the Coordination Council is "unconstitutional," and two other key members of the council's presidium have been jailed on charges of organizing unauthorized demonstrations against Lukashenko.

Belarusian Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich, one of dozens of public figures who has joined the Coordination Council, was questioned by the Investigative Committee on August 26.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Berlin after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 27 that Lukashenko "must demonstrate full respect" for the fundamental rights of the Belarusian people, "including freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest."

Stoltenberg also refuted Lukashenko's claim that NATO forces were being deployed on the borders of Belarus, saying it would be "unjustified" to use the NATO alliance as an excuse for further crackdowns.

"NATO has no military buildup in the region so any attempt to use that an excuse to crack down on peaceful protesters is absolutely unjustified," Stoltenberg said, adding that it was up to the people of Belarus to decide their own future.

European Union foreign ministers, meanwhile, are gathering in Berlin on August 27 to discuss expected sanctions against as many as 20 Belarusian officials accused of falsifying the election results or being involved in violent crackdowns against protesters.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has criticized Belarusian authorities for "severe human rights violations and violations of basic democratic principles," saying the violations would "not go unanswered."

Maas said it was "absolutely unacceptable" that members of the Coordination Council, formed last week with the stated aim of negotiating a transfer of power with Lukashenko's government, were being "imprisoned, interrogated, and intimidated."

Meanwhile, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, said Belarusian police and security officers carried out "inappropriate and unlawful" actions against demonstrators at a church that faces Independence Square in Minsk on August 26.

Kondrusiewicz on August 27 called for an investigation into the activities of police, saying their conduct "does not help ease tensions" in Belarus at a time when the Catholic Church is calling for "reconciliation and dialogue" to end the "social and political conflict, which has no precedents in our country."

Several dozen protesters had found refuge in the church on August 26, and police blocked its doors to keep them inside for about 40 minutes while authorities dispersed a crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators on the nearby square and arrested about 50 protesters.

It was the 18th day of protests challenging the official results of the election.

People waved historic Belarusian red-and-white flags -- which have become a symbol of the opposition -- and chanted "Leave!" as they called for Lukashenko's resignation and demanded new elections be carried out in a free-and-fair manner.

At least three people also were detained at a separate protest in Brest on August 26, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported.

Vyasna activist Valyantsin Stefanovich called the detentions an act of intimidation. He said authorities appear to have "stopped beatings" for now, "but fear and threats remain their main weapon."

The United States and the European Union have criticized the Belarusian vote as neither free nor fair and urged Lukashenko's government to engage in a dialogue with the opposition.