Belarus Blocks News Websites Amid Large Protests

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- Authorities in Belarus have blocked an array of news media websites reporting on the country shaken by two weeks of protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said Saturday that more than 20 sites had been blocked, including those of U.S.-funded Radio Liberty and Belsat, a Polish-funded satellite TV channel focusing on Belarus.

On Friday, the state publishing house stopped printing top independent newspapers the Narodnaya Volya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing equipment malfunction.

Protests unprecedented in Belarus for their size and duration broke out after the Aug. 9 presidential election in which official results handed Lukashenko a sixth term in office. Protesters allege the results were manipulated and are calling for Lukashenko to resign.

Police responded harshly in the first days of the protests, arresting some 7,000 people, beating many of them. But the protests have widened their scope, with strikes called at some of the country's main factories.

In an enormous show of defiance, an estimated 200,000 protesters rallied last Sunday in the capital, Minsk. Lukashenko's main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called for another march this Sunday.

“We are closer than ever to our dream,” she said in a video message from Lithuania, where she took refuge after the election.

Public shows of support for Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, have been comparatively modest. A rally in Minsk last Sunday attracted about a quarter as many people as the protest march. On Saturday, only about 25 people showed up for a bicycle ride meant to show support for the president.

Lukashenko in turn alleges that the protests are inspired by unnamed Western forces and that NATO is deploying forces near Belarus' western border. The alliance firmly denies that claim.

On Saturday, Lukashenko renewed the allegation during a visit to a military exercise in the Grodno region, near the borders of Poland and Lithuania.

“You see that they are already dragging an 'alternative president' here,” he said, referring to Tsikhanouskaya. "Military support is evident — the movement of NATO troops to the borders.

Authorities on Friday threatened demonstrators with criminal charges in a bid to stop the protests. Investigators also summoned several opposition activists for questioning as part of a criminal probe into a council they created with the goal of coordinating a transition of power for the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million.