Belarus’s interior minister says security forces can use live fire against those participating in “sabotage or a terror attack,” as weeks of protests against strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka swell into a national strike.
The warning from Interior Minister Yury Karayev on October 28 comes a day after Lukashenka described strikes called by the opposition this week "the actions of organized criminal groups."
Lukashenka said the country was "starting to face terrorist threats," in reference to weeks of peaceful protests against his rule.
Karayev, who has been put under EU sanctions for his role in the brutal crackdown on protesters, said in an interview that weapons should not be used against peaceful protesters.
"[If] a person carries out sabotage or a terror attack, attacks police officers, of course they must be stopped via any means at a police officer’s disposal-- from physical force to combat weapons," he said.
Belarus has witnessed near daily protests since the country’s August 9 presidential election that Lukashenka, in power since 1994, claims he won by a landslide
The opposition and Western governments say the poll was rigged.
A violent crackdown by authorities has resulted in several deaths, hundreds of injuries, and more than 10,000 arrests. There have been widespread and credible reports of torture.
Thousands of workers at state-owned factories and private firms as well as students at universities across the Eastern European country have heeded a call from opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to join a national strike after Lukashenka ignored a demand that he resign, halt a brutal crackdown on protesters, and free political prisoners by October 25.
Tsikhanouskaya said on October 28 that she was so far "satisfied" with a mass general strike launched on October 26, but suggested police intimidation and retribution against workers led to lower-than-expected mobilization.
With the Belarusian state controlling a large part of the economy, previous strikes in factories have not lasted, as workers have faced intimidation and threats of dismissal.
Speaking at a digital press conference following a meeting with Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide, Tsikhanouskaya described the strikers and protesters as "heroes."
She also pointed to "how violent riot police” behave, in explaining why the strikes have not been as "big as we expected."
On October 25, a demonstration brought an estimated 100,000 people together in Minsk, in the latest mass showing of popular discontent against Lukashenka.
Most of the country’s opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to flee, including Tsikhanouskaya. She left Belarus for Lithuania days after the vote amid threats against herself and her family.