(Reuters) – More than 100,000 people marched through Minsk on Sunday on the sixth straight weekend of protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, keeping up the pressure on the veteran Belarusian leader to quit.
Many walked in a vast column that stretched back several kilometres, decked out in red-and-white opposition colours and chanting “go away” as helmeted riot police patrolled the streets with water canons on hand, a witness said.
Several protesters were dragged away from the crowd by security forces. In the city centre, riot police rhythmically beat their shields as a warning while several people threw glass bottles at them.
Videos shared by local media outlets showed security forces in helmets or masks hauling protesters off the streets in simultaneous protests in other cities.
The eastern European country was plunged into turmoil following a presidential election last month that Lukashenko says he won by a landslide, but the opposition says was rigged.
In power for 26 years, the former Soviet collective farm manager has shown scant inclination to resign, buoyed by support from Russia.
The European Union vowed weeks ago to impose sanctions on Minsk for alleged election fraud and human rights abuses, but is likely to miss its own Monday deadline for action.
POLICE DATA LEAKED
In tandem with the protests, anonymous hackers leaked the personal data of more than 2,000 police officers in retaliation for a crackdown in which thousands of people have been detained, many complaining of beatings and torture in jail.
The government has denied abusing detainees.
The loyalty of the security forces is crucial to Lukashenko’s ability to cling on to power. Their faces are often obscured by masks, balaclavas or riot helmets. Some protesters have torn the masks off some officers.
“As the arrests continue, we will continue to publish data on a massive scale,” said a statement distributed by the opposition news channel Nexta Live on the messaging app Telegram. “No one will remain anonymous even under a balaclava.”
The first batch of 1,000 names was released on Saturday and widely distributed on Telegram channels.
The second batch of more than 1,000 names was released on Sunday evening, targeting officers in the western city of Brest where the hackers said the police had been particularly heavy-handed.
The government said it would find and punish those responsible for leaking the data.
“The forces, means and technologies at the disposal of the internal affairs bodies make it possible to identify and prosecute the overwhelming majority of those guilty of leaking personal data on the Internet,” said Olga Chemodanova, the spokeswoman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
At least 196 people were detained across the country on Sunday, the human rights group Spring-96 said.
The Russian news agency TASS said at least ten people had been held, citing police. The government typically releases the final figures the following day.
Footage shared by Belarusian media outlets showed police dragging people from the front of a column of protesters who had linked arms in Brest, and firing spray from a bottle into the face of one of them. One security officer fired a warning shot into the air in a separate incident.
“They sprayed gas in the face of peaceful people, fired into the air, showed particular cruelty,” a second statement by the hackers said.
“We warned that you will definitely have to answer for crimes against Belarusians. We add to the existing database a list of more than 1,000 ghouls from Brest and the Brest region.”
Metro stations were closed in central Minsk and the mobile internet disrupted for several hours.
The government said 390 women were detained for taking part in a protest on Saturday. Most have been released.
Russia sees Belarus as a strategic buffer state against the EU and NATO, and has accused the United States of fomenting revolution in its neighbour.
Moscow agreed to give a $1.5 billion loan to prop up Lukashenko’s government following a meeting between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Belarus will channel about $330 million of its new loan to cover its outstanding debt to Russian gas giant Gazprom <GAZP.MM>, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov was quoted by TASS as saying.
(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alex Richardson, Philippa Fletcher and Jan Harvey)