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Belarus president's supporters rally in protest-hit capital

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Thousands of people have gathered in a square near Belarus' main government building for a rally to support President Alexander Lukashenko, while opposition supporters whose protests have convulsed the country for a week aim to hold a major march in the capital.

Protests began late on Aug. 9 at the closing of presidential elections. Official results say the authoritarian Lukashenko, in office since 1994, won a sixth term in a landslide with about 80% of the vote. Protesters claim the election was a sham and allege results were manipulated.

About 7,000 people were arrested over several days of protests, which police harshly tried to put down with clubs, rubber bullets and flash grenades. Many detainees were later released, complaining of brutality from police while in custody and showing extensive bruises.

As Lukashenko's supporters waited for his expected appearance at the Sunday rally, many chanted Lukashenko's nickname of “Batka," or father, and “Maidan won't take place,” referring to the months of protest in Ukraine in 2013-14 that drove then-President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country.

“Now everybody is against Lukashenko and the president needs our support. Everybody suddenly has forgotten the good things he has done — there's order in the country, we don't have war of hunger,” said supporter Tamara Yurshevich, a 35-year-old lawyer.

Belarus' declining economy and Lukashenko's dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic as “psychosis” are among the factors that galvanized the largest and most sustained protests the country has seen.

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