Strikers left vehicle factories, oil refineries, and fabric and fertilizer manufacturers, spurred on by the level of police violence against protesters in the week since election results gave Lukashenko 80% voices.
The authoritarian leader on Sunday rejected calls to resign in a provocative speech, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was ready to provide aid in accordance with a collective military pact if needed.
But Putin stopped short of offering support or approval for Lukashenko, who is facing the most serious crisis of his career. Moscow is likely to wait and see if Lukashenko can survive the next few weeks, if not days, as protests and labor strikes escalate and pressure mounts on him to leave office.
Crowds of protesters estimated at 100,000 marched through the streets of the capital to Central Independence Square on Sunday in what the independent Belarusian news site Tut.by called “the biggest in the world.” history of independent Belarus ”.
Columns of protesters raised signs of victory and held flowers and balloons as a sea of protesters gathered in Independence Square, the center of peaceful protests in recent days.“Now we are changing history,” said Yekaterina Gorbina, 26, content manager. “Blood has flowed and people will never forget it.”
Darya Kukhta, 39, mother of six, said: “We believe that a new Belarus is starting. I am very happy to see this with my own eyes.
The demonstrators held placards with slogans such as “You cannot wash the blood” and “Lukashenko must answer for the torture and the deaths.”
Other large cities in the former Soviet country of 9 million people also saw large gatherings, local media reported.
Popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had called for a weekend of protests after she left for neighboring Lithuania following disputed elections.
Over the past week, more Belarusians have taken to the streets to condemn Lukashenko’s controversial victory and a violent crackdown by riot police and the mistreatment of detainees.
Unusually, tightly controlled state television news broadcast a short article about the “alternative protest” in Minsk, without showing any anti-Lukashenko slogans.
Outside Belarus, hundreds of Czechs and Belarusians, some wearing the traditional red and white Belarusian flag and portraits of Tikhanovskaya, gathered in the historic center of Prague on Sunday to support the protests. There were also smaller demonstrations of support in Romania and Poland, AFP journalists reported.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, faces an unprecedented challenge to its leaders. The 65-year-old strongman staged a rare campaign-style rally in Independence Square ahead of the opposition protest.
He told supporters waving the flag, “I called you here not to defend myself … but for the first time in a quarter of a century, to defend your country and its independence.”
State television reported that 65,000 people attended the rally, although other reports suggest several thousand were in attendance.
“The elections were valid,” Lukashenko said in a sometimes moving speech. “We will not give away the country.”
With increasing pressure from the streets and abroad after EU leaders agreed to draw up a list of targets for a new round of sanctions, Lukashenko reached out to Russia, the country’s closest ally. Belarus.
The Kremlin said that during an appeal with Lukashenko, Putin expressed “Russia’s willingness to provide necessary assistance” including “if necessary” through the CSTO military alliance between six former Soviet states.
RT Kremlin-funded television reported that this was in the case of “external military threats”.
A violent police crackdown on protesters saw more than 6,700 people arrested, hundreds injured and two dead.
Thousands of opposition supporters also demonstrated in Minsk on Saturday, where a 34-year-old protester died in the unrest on Monday.
Officials said the man, Alexander Taraisky, died when an explosive device he was holding detonated in his hand. Following the release of video footage contradicting this, Home Secretary Yury Karayev told Tut.by on Sunday: “Maybe they shot him down with non-lethal weapons,” claiming that only bullets in rubber had been used.
Tikhanovskaya announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to “help us organize a dialogue with the Belarusian authorities”.
She called on the authorities to release all the detainees, to drive the security forces out of the streets and to open criminal proceedings against those who ordered the crackdown.
She said she would hold new elections if Lukashenko resigned.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report