Security forces in Belarus could fire on protesters if they deem it necessary, a minister has warned, as EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions personally targeting President Alexander Lukashenko.
Gennady Kazakevich, the first deputy interior minister, said in a video statement: “We will not leave the streets, and law enforcement officers and internal troops if necessary will use riot control equipment and lethal weapons.”
The statement was the first time the authorities have explicitly threatened to use firearms against opposition demonstrators and would mark a major escalation in the two-month standoff between Lukashenko and protesters, who have staged peaceful rallies against his disputed re-election in August and against the abuse and torture of detainees.
The warning came after security forces cracked down harshly on anti-Lukashenko protests on Sunday, prompting EU foreign ministers to agree it was time to sanction Lukashenko himself.
Late on Monday, officers used tear gas and stun grenades against a group of older people holding a regular protest march, prompting outrage from the opposition.
The protests broke out when Lukashenko claimed victory in elections held on 9 August that are widely regarded as rigged. Popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims to be the true winner, has been based in Lithuania since she was forced to flee after being threatened in a conversation with officials the night after the election.
In Belarus, police have so far acknowledged using water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the protesters.
Kazakevich claimed that protests had become “extremely radical”, saying stones and bottles were thrown at police on Sunday by protesters armed with knives, who built barricades and set fire to tyres. “This has nothing in common with civil protest,” the deputy minister said, claiming that “groups of fighters, radicals, anarchists and football fans” were taking part.
Belarus was facing attempts to revive the “chaos of the 1990s” and foment the “colour revolutions” that have toppled pro-Kremlin leaders in other ex-Soviet states, he said.
His statement came as police have used some of the harshest tactics yet against protesters.
On Monday, men in balaclavas carrying batons confronted a crowd of mainly middle-aged and older women carrying placards with slogans such as “the grandmothers are with the people”, video footage by Tut.by independent news site showed.
Minsk police spokesman Roman Lashkevich told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency: “We deployed stun grenades from an Osa flare gun and fired teargas when the citizens started to show aggression”.
“Today the regime crossed yet another line,” Tikhanovskaya said in a statement, pointing out that older Belarusians had once been seen as Lukashenko’s most loyal demographic.
The men in balaclavas were shown spraying teargas from inside their vehicles as protesters angry at the detention of demonstrators threw flowers at them and shouted “Fascists!” and “Cowards!”
Later, protesters in Minsk blocked roads and set tyres on fire, as military vehicles drove through the city centre, Tut.by reported.
During Sunday’s mass protests, police deployed water cannon and stun grenades in Minsk, detaining more than 700 people across the country, the interior ministry said.
The crackdown ended any expectations that a prison visit by Lukashenko to hold over four hours of talks with critics held in jail at the weekend marked any change in approach.
European foreign ministers on Monday agreed Lukashenko’s name should join a list of 40 of his officials already sanctioned by the EU with travel bans and asset freezes, diplomatic sources said.
The EU had held back from penalising Lukashenko himself, hoping to persuade him to engage in dialogue with opposition forces to resolve the crisis.