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Thousands turn out in Minsk in support of Lukashenko opponent ahead of presidential election

Thousands turn out in Minsk in support of Lukashenko opponent ahead of presidential election
A sea of people has filled a park for a rally in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskya, the opposition candidate in the Belarusian election set for next week, in what is reported to be the biggest anti-government protest in a decade.

Thousands of people flocked to the ‘Druzhba’ [Friendship] park in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on Thursday to voice support for Tikhanovskya, who has emerged as a top challenger to the incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko after several prominent opposition candidates were disqualified from the race.

According to estimates by Belarusian human rights group ‘Viasna,’ at least 63,000 people joined the rally-cum-concert event. Attendees sang along in Russian, while flashing cell phone lights and waving balloons, red-and-green state banners as well white-red-white flags of historical significance.

Tikhanovskya first addressed the rally in Belarusian, and then switched to Russian. She said that she rejects revolution, and wants “peaceful changes” through “fair elections.”

The rally proceeded incident-free, with no arrests or disruptions reported.

Tikhanovskya’s husband, YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky, remains in jail on charges of obstructing elections and interfering with the work of Belarus's Central Electoral Commission. On Thursday, he faced additional charges of inciting mass riots, which were tied by the country’s investigative committee to the case of 33 suspected Russian mercenaries arrested in Minsk earlier this week.

The Belarusian security chief identified the suspects as members of the ‘Wagner Group’ – a shady company providing mercenary services throughout the world and said to be operating from Russia.

Also on rt.com No official information received on Russian ‘mercenaries’ detained in Belarus – embassy

While speculation has been rife as to how the arrest of alleged Wagner-linked contractors might impact the looming vote, Lukashenko himself did not point any fingers, ordering a thorough probe into the incident and saying that he has “no intention of smearing an allied nation” without getting to the bottom of the case.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed on Thursday that 33 Russian citizens had been arrested in Belarus, and that another warrant had been issued for 200 more. He said that Moscow is, so far, unaware of any illegal activities incriminating the Russian citizens, adding that he expects their rights to be respected during the investigation.

Presidential elections in Belarus will be held on August 9, and the results are likely to hand reelection to Lukashenko, who is polling high at 72.3 percent, with Tikhanovskya lagging far behind at 7.5 percent, according to the latest Ecoom survey poll.

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