Hundreds arrested in Belarus 'Freedom Day' protest

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People carry a giant historical flag of Belarus during a celebration 103rd anniversary of the declaration of the Belarusian People's Respublic, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Thursday, March 25, 2021. Freedom Day is an unofficial holiday in Belarus celebrated on 25 March to commemorate the declaration of independence by the Belarusian Democratic Republic on that date in 1918.(AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

KYIV – Protesters calling for the resignation of Belarus’ authoritarian president marched in small groups Thursday throughout the capital of Minsk, the first sizable turnout of demonstrators since weeks of protest rocked the country last year.

The groups marched through courtyards and streets in a tactic aimed at avoiding widescale arrests like those during the massive protest gatherings of 2020, some of which approached 200,000 people.

Riot police set up a heavy presence in the center of Minsk on Thursday and deployed water cannon. Videos on social media showed police arresting people holding the red-and-white flags that are an emblem of the opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said more than 200 people were detained in connection with unauthorized gatherings throughout the country.

Lukashenko, frequently characterized as Europe's last dictator, has strongly repressed opposition and independent news media during 26 years as president.

The protests that broke out in August after a disputed election which gave him a sixth term in office were the largest and most persistent show of opposition the former Soviet republic has seen.

Protests dwindled markedly in recent months as freezing winter weather gripped the country and opposition morale flagged amid harsh arrests.

More than 33,000 people were arrested during last year's protests, many of them beaten by police. Some of those arrested have drawn long prison sentences, including two journalists who were sentenced in February to two years in prison for covering the protests.