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Thousands rally in Belarus capital Minsk despite crackdown

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Supporters of presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya turn on flashlights on their phones during her campaign rally in Minsk on July 30, 2020.
Supporters of presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya turn on flashlights on their phones during her campaign rally in Minsk on July 30, 2020.   -   Copyright  Sergei GAPON / AFP
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Thousands of people gathered at a rally in the Belarus capital of Minsk on Thursday in support of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is challenging authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko in presidential elections next month.

Observers said the rally was the biggest in Belarus' history since independence from the Soviet Union, with estimates the crowd in Minsk's Bangalore Square reached over 25,000.

Tikhanovskaya, 37, is the wife of jailed opposition blogger and presidential hopeful, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was arrested in May on charges of attacking a police officer, which he rejected as a provocation.

She launched her presidential bid after her husband's arrest and has promised to free political prisoners and stage new elections if she is elected into office.

The message has helped Tikhanovskaya attract large crowds at rallies across the country.

Election officials earlier rejected attempts by two other potential presidential challengers to register for the race.

"They (the authorities) keep talking about some revolution. My God, what revolution? We just want fair elections. What does a revolution have to do with it?" Tikhanovskaya said in a speech during Thursday's rally.

"We are peaceful people, and we want peaceful changes for our country," she added.

Lukashenko is campaigning to remain in office for a sixth term amid an upsurge in opposition protests fueled by public fatigue with his iron-fisted rule and painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The rally on Thursday came after the detention of 33 Russian citizens in Belarus who the authorities accused of plotting terror attacks before the presidential elections scheduled for August 9 – a claim that Russian officials have sharply dismissed.

Many critics, including Tikhanovskaya, dismissed the official claims of a Russian subversion plot as a sham designed to rally support around the sitting president.