French President Emmanuel Macron said it's clear that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has to step down, as protests over his disputed reelection continued for a seventh week.
Between 50,000 and 100,000 people joined a protest in Minsk on Sunday, according to Interfax and Minsk-based news website Nasha Niva. Police tried to prevent the rally from swelling to the size seen in some previous weeks by blocking streets and making numerous detentions while central parts of the city have been paralyzed with cordons. As usual during protest rallies, mobile internet was slowed down or disabled in Minsk.
Police scuffled with protesters in the country's second-largest city, Gomel, and made arrests in Grodno near the Polish border, according to local media. Minsk-based human rights center Viasna said that more than 60 people were detained, while the actual number of arrests may be higher. Belarus authorities so far declined to meet any of the demands of the opposition.
"What's happening in Belarus is a crisis of power, an authoritarian power that's unable to accept the logic of democracy and is clinging on through force," Macron told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper in comments published on Sunday. "Lukashenko clearly must go."
Lukashenko was sworn in for a sixth term in a surprise ceremony on Wednesday. Western governments including Germany and Lithuania have refused to recognize his legitimacy, while exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she is the only leader elected by the Belarusian people.
Tsikhanouskaya told Le Journal du Dimanche in an interview that she would be "very grateful" if Macron refused to recognize Lukashenko as president during a planned trip to Lithuania on Monday and Tuesday, where she is in exile. The French president will also visit Latvia on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The newspaper reported that while a meeting between her and the French leader hasn't been ruled out, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is due to meet her.
Tsikhanouskaya said the priority was to organize fresh elections in her country and that Macron could act as a mediator between the opposition council and the Belarusian authorities. She added that economic sanctions on Belarus were not a solution as they would hurt the people.
Russia's close relationship with Belarus and its population meant Moscow could influence the situation, Macron said in the interview.
He referred to a conversation with President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 14: "I told him Russia has a role to play, and this role can be positive if he pushes Lukashenko to respect the reality of the ballot box and free political prisoners."
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