Belarusian authorities arrested two leading opposition activists allegedly helping to spearhead protests in the country, demanding the resignation of longtime President Alexander Lukashenko following a disputed election.
The opposition’s Coordination Council said police in the capital, Minsk detained its members Olga Kovalkova and Sergei Dylevsky on Monday. City police confirmed their detention.
Tens of thousands of people rallied in the Belarus capital Sunday, despite army warnings, with calls for Lukashenko to resign after the disputed election results, a post-election crackdown, and a heavy military presence in the city.
"Today, we can't sit back and watch how protests are being held by these sacred places under the flags that fascists organized the mass killings of Belarusians, Russians, Jewish people and other nationalities,” said Defense Minister Victor Khrenin. “We cannot allow this. We categorically warn: any violation of peace and order in such places — you will have the army to deal with now, not the police."
Protesters, many wearing and waving the opposition’s colors of red and white, chanted “freedom” and “we will not forget, we will not forgive” as they walked in the Minsk city center.
"Our resistance is a marathon, the regime cannot deal with this marathon, but we can. We have the will, strength and support of each other. We should all write, go out, speak out, stand up, complain, be uncooperative, boycott, not agree and keep it up!” said opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova.
The protests have been the biggest challenge yet to Lukashenko's 26 year rule. He was declared winner with of the August 9 election that was marred by allegations of fraud.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition candidate who fled to Lithuania after the election and claimed to have won from 60 to 70% of the vote, said Saturday that Belarusians must "struggle for their rights" and not be distracted by Lukashenko’s claims that the country was under military threat.
Protesters briefly gathered near the president's residence, before dispersing peacefully.
Belarusian state television showed Lukashenko flying over the protesters in a helicopter before landing at his residence and getting out in body armor with a rifle in his hand.
While state media reported about 20,000 protesters took part, opposition-leaning media put the estimate at nearly 100,000 protesters.
Lukashenko has called demonstrators “rats.”
Previously, he has used riot police to disperse rallies, but Reuters witnessed no clashes between police and protesters Sunday.
However, in the 15 days of protests, more than 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds beaten by police. Two people have been killed in the post-election protests in Belarus, it has been confirmed.
The EU and United States have criticized the vote and condemned the crackdown.
Thirty-one years ago, on August 23, 1989, an estimated two million people joined arms across the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in a protest against Soviet rule that became known as the "Baltic Way." Protesters formed a 600-kilometer-long human chain from Vilnius, Lithuania, to the Belarusian border. Two years later, the Baltic states would achieve their freedom.
On Sunday, mass protests were held in Lithuania and Latvia, and were scheduled to occur in Estonia and Prague, as a show of support for Belarus across the Baltics.
Organizers in Lithuania Sunday estimated up to 50,000 people took part in their rally. In Latvia, hundreds marched along the Belarus border, the French news agency reported. Elsewhere, human chains were planned in Estonia and Prague.
Also, it was announced Saturday that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun will visit Lithuania and Russia for talks on the Belarusian post-election crisis.
Tsikhanouskaya's team said Saturday that Biegun would meet the opposition candidate in Lithuania.
RFE/RL contributed to this report.