MINSK, Belarus – Belarusian authorities have blocked a number of media websites reporting on the country rocked by two weeks of protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian Journalists Association said on Saturday that more than 20 sites had been blocked, including those of US-funded Radio Liberty and Belsat, a Polish-funded satellite television channel that focuses on Belarus.
On Friday, the state publishing house stopped printing major independent newspapers Narodnaya Volya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing equipment malfunction.
Unprecedented protests in Belarus over its size and duration erupted after the August 9 presidential elections in which official results gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office. The protesters allege that the results were rigged and are calling for Lukashenko’s resignation.
Police responded harshly in the early days of the protests, arresting some 7,000 people and beating many of them. But the protests have broadened their reach, with strikes called at some of the country’s main factories.
In a huge show of defiance, an estimated 200,000 protesters marched last Sunday in the capital Minsk. Lukashenko’s main rival in the elections, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called another march on Sunday.
“We are closer than ever to our dream,” he said in a video message from Lithuania, where he took refuge after the elections.
Public displays of support for Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, have been comparatively modest. A rally in Minsk last Sunday drew a quarter of the number of people as the protest march. On Saturday, only about 25 people showed up for a bike ride to show their support for the president.
Lukashenko, in turn, alleges that the protests are inspired by unidentified Western forces and that NATO is deploying forces near the western border of Belarus. The alliance strongly denies that claim.
On Saturday, Lukashenko renewed the accusation during a visit to a military exercise in the Grodno region, near the Polish and Lithuanian borders.
“You see they are already dragging an ‘alternate president’ here,” he said, referring to Tsikhanouskaya. “The military support is evident _ the movement of NATO troops to the borders.
Authorities threatened protesters with criminal charges on Friday in an attempt to stop the protests. Investigators also summoned several opposition activists for questioning as part of a criminal investigation into a council they created with the goal of coordinating a transition of power for the 9.5 million former Soviet republic.
Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.