Belarus Workers Hit The Streets, As EU Chief Calls Summit

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- Thousands of factory workers in Belarus took to the streets and hundreds of demonstrators besieged the state television headquarters Monday, raising the pressure on authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down after 26 years in office.

On the ninth straight day of protests against the official results of the Aug. 9 presidential vote handing him a sixth term, Lukashenko flew by helicopter to a factory in the capital in a bid to rally support but was heckled by workers chanting “Go away!”

Facing the angry crowd, the 65-year-old former state farm director dismissed the calls to step down.

As he spoke, over 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant marched down the streets of Minsk, demanding that Lukashenko cede his post to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate.

The official results of the Aug. 9 vote gave Lukashenko 80% of the votes and Tsikhanouskaya only 10%, but the opposition claimed the vote was rigged.

“Lukashenko is a former president, he needs to go,” Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest at the Minsk Tractor Works plant, told The Associated Press on Monday. “Sveta (Tsikhanouskaya) is our president, legitimate and elected by the people.”

Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, entered the race after her husband's jailing in Belarus. She managed to galvanize nationwide support, drawing tens of thousands to her campaign rallies.

Large-scale protests against the vote results continued even after she left the country for Lithuania last week, a move her campaign said was made under duress. The protests have posed the biggest challenge yet to Lukashenko's iron-fisted rule of the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million.

Belarusian authorities initially tried to suppress the rallies, detaining almost 7,000 people in the first days of the protests. Police moved aggressively, using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, injuring scores of people.

However, as protests grew and the harsh crackdown drew criticism in the West, law enforcement refrained from interfering with the crowds and appeared all but absent during a rally on Sunday that attracted some 200,000 people.

In Brussels, European Council President Charles Michel convened an emergency summit of EU leaders on Wednesday to discuss the handling of the election and the crackdown in the wake of the polls.

“The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader," Michel said in a tweet. “Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed.”

The video-conference summit will take place on Wednesday at 1000 GMT.

On Friday, the 27 EU foreign ministers underlined that the elections were neither free nor fair and that they refuse to accept the results of the polls, as announced by the Belarus electoral commission. They tasked officials with drawing up a list of people who could face sanctions over their role in the violence.

Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement Monday she was ready to facilitate a rerun of the disputed election.

“I'm ready to take on the responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down, return to its normal rhythm, in order for us to free all the political prisoners and prepare legislation and conditions for organizing new presidential elections,” she said.

Lukashenko bristled at the idea of talks with the opposition, insisting his government was the only legitimate one, and rejected the idea of repeating the election at a rally in his support on Sunday. The embattled president told a crowd of 50,000 that the country would “perish as a state” otherwise, and denounced the protesters as stooges of foreign masterminds.

Lukashenko visited another tractor plant on Monday and dismissed the strikes as insignificant. “So, 150 (people) at some factory, even 200 don't make a difference," the president was quoted as saying by the state Belta news agency.

Thousands of workers from several other plants in the meantime gathered outside, shouting “We're not sheep, we're people," and “Strike!”

Maria Kolesnikova, Tsikhanouskaya's top associate, attended the gathering and said that “only the former president (Lukashenko) stepping down will calm the nation down."