Belarus police have threatened to fire on protesters to break up demonstrations, in a sign that the authorities may be preparing even harsher tactics as the protests enter a third month.
Police detained over 700 people as protesters clashed with law enforcement on Sunday, the Interior Ministry said. The violence appeared to mark a shift from the largely peaceful weekly protests that started after a disputed August 9 election.
Unidentified men in balaclavas used stun grenades and pepper spray on people participating in a march of pensioners against the authorities on Monday, Tut.by website reported.
“The protests, which have shifted mostly to Minsk, have become more organised and extremely radical,” a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said. “Interior Ministry troops won’t leave the streets and will use special equipment and combat weapons if necessary.”
Police have so far only acknowledged using water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the protesters.
Belarus’s first deputy interior minister Gennady Kazakevich said stones and bottles had been thrown at police on Sunday by protesters armed with knives, who built barricades and set fire to tyres.
Belarus was facing attempts to revive the “chaos of the 1990s” and foment the “colour revolutions” that have toppled pro-Kremlin leaders in other ex-Soviet states, he said.
The warning comes after President Alexander Lukashenko met in prison with several jailed members of the opposition over the weekend. After the meeting on constitutional reforms, which included presidential candidate Viktor Babaryka, two of the participants were released under house arrest, according to state-run Belta news service.
Lukashenko, who has been in office for 26 years, was sworn in for a sixth term on September 23 as the opposition has maintained daily protests against his regime that swell to hundreds of thousands across the country at weekends.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she was the only leader elected by the Belarusian people.
“Yesterday we have seen the escalation of violence on the part of the authorities. Once again, hundreds of people are detained, beaten up, injured and crippled. Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, repressions are intensifying,” Tsikhanouskaya said on Monday.
European Union foreign ministers said they were ready to add Lukashenko to a blacklist of Belarusians who have impeded free elections that it unveiled earlier this month.
The EU and the United States have slapped dozens of Belarusian officials with sanctions, but didn’t target Lukashenko. The UK and Canada have already sanctioned the Belarusian strongman.
Lukashenko is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has blamed the domestic unrest on the West.
Analysts say the protest movement is keeping him under pressure but the continued backing of the security forces, and for the moment key ally Russia, is allowing him to stay in power.
Earlier this month Belarusian authorities rescinded the accreditation of all journalists working for foreign news outlets and said they must apply for new credentials, which some foreign outlets received last week.
In September, the authorities also suspended the media credentials of the most popular independent Belarusian news site that has been extensively covering the protests.