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belarus protests

Belarus holds massive anti-government protest as opposition leader says she is ready to step in

Belarus hosted separate and unequal rallies Sunday, with opponents of long-term President Alexander Lukashenko holding their biggest protest yet in Minsk, the capital, while a much smaller crowd gathered to hear Lukashenko vow to hold on to power and warn of foreign interference. The protesters say Lukashenko rigged the Aug. 8 presidential election — in which, according to the Central Election Commission, he won 80.1 percent of the vote, versus 10.1 percent for opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after criticizing the results, released a video Monday saying she is "ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period," until new elections are held. She encouraged police and security forces to switch allegiance from the beleaguered Lukashenko, saying they would be forgiven for any brutalities committed on his orders. About 6,700 people have been arrested in the post-election protests, and many say they were tortured or threatened with rape and other crimes while detained.

With Lukashenko refusing to engage with protesters and seeking military assistance from Moscow, opposition leaders have called for escalating strikes. Workers at state-run factories walked off the job last week, and some police have come out in support of the protesters. State TV employees appear to have joined the strikes on Monday, with empty anchor desks replacing the morning news.

The government says about 65,000 people turned out to hear Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years. AFP puts the number closer to 10,000, and some of the attendees were reportedly state workers forced to attend. The anti-Lukashenko protest drew about 220,000 people according to independent media outlet Tut.by.