KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Authorities in Belarus said Monday they detained 713 people during mass protests a day earlier against the re-election of the country's authoritarian leader in a disputed election — the harshest crackdown in weeks on demonstrators.
The Interior Ministry reported out of those detained Sunday, 570 of them were still in custody awaiting a court hearing. In a separate statement, the ministry threatened to use firearms against the protesters "if need be," saying that the rallies "have become organized and extremely radical."
Despite the detentions, protests in Belarus continued Monday, with the elderly taking to the streets in several Belarusian cities, demanding Lukashenko's resignation. More than 2,000 people marched through Minsk, chanting "Go away!" and carrying signs saying "Grandmothers (stand) with the people" and "Our souls are scarred with terror." Several people were detained.
The protests demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko spanned several cities Sunday, with the largest crowds gathering in the capital, Minsk. The Viasna human rights center estimated that around 100,000 people took part in the Minsk rally. Police quickly moved to disperse the protest with water cannons, stun grenades and truncheons, preventing groups of people in different parts of the city from merging into one large gathering.
Dozens of people sustained injuries in what human rights advocates said was the harshest dispersal of a Sunday demonstration since August.
Mass protests have rocked Belarus since Aug. 9, when the results of the presidential election handed Lukashenko a victory with 80 percent of the vote and his main challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya only 10 percent. Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters refused to recognize the results of the vote, saying it was riddled with fraud, and some poll workers have backed up that claim.
Both the European Union and the United States have said the presidential election was neither free nor fair.
In the first days of the protests, Belarusian authorities cracked down brutally on protesters, with police detaining thousands and beating scores.
The violent response to the rallies prompted international outrage. The EU and the United States slapped dozens of Belarusian officials with sanctions for their roles in the alleged vote-rigging and the crackdown on protesters but didn't target Lukashenko, who has run the country for 26 years with an iron fist.
The government has since scaled back on the violence but has maintained the pressure, detaining hundreds of protesters and prosecuting top activists. Prominent members of the opposition's Coordination Council, which was formed to push for a transition of power, have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
More than 40 journalists were detained over the weekend, 25 of them in Minsk, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said. Fifteen Belarusian journalists in Minsk face up to 15 days of administrative arrest for disobeying police officers. Many had their equipment seized.
"The authorities are trying to prevent coverage of the protests by beating up and detaining journalists, withdrawing their accreditation and creating catastrophic working conditions," Andrei Bastunets, head of the journalists' association, told the Associated Press.