Security forces in Belarus could fire on protesters if they deem it necessary, a minister has warned, as EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions personally targeting President Alexander Lukashenko.
Gennady Kazakevich, the first deputy interior minister, said in a video statement: “We will not leave the streets, and law enforcement officers and internal troops if necessary will use riot control equipment and lethal weapons.”
The statement was the first time the authorities have explicitly threatened to use firearms against opposition demonstrators and would mark a major escalation in the two-month standoff between Lukashenko and protesters, who have staged peaceful rallies against his disputed re-election in August and against the abuse and torture of detainees.
The warning came after security forces cracked down harshly on anti-Lukashenko protests on Sunday, prompting EU foreign ministers to agree it was time to sanction Lukashenko himself.
Late on Monday, officers used tear gas and stun grenades against a group of older people holding a regular protest march, prompting outrage from the opposition.
The protests broke out when Lukashenko claimed victory in elections held on 9 August that are widely regarded as rigged. Popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims to be the true winner, has been based in Lithuania since she was forced to flee after being threatened in a conversation with officials the night after the election.
In Belarus, police have so far acknowledged using water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the protesters.
Kazakevich claimed that protests had become “extremely radical”, saying stones and bottles were thrown at police on Sunday by protesters armed with knives, who built barricades and set fire to tyres. “This has nothing in common with civil protest,” the deputy minister said, claiming that “groups of fighters, radicals, anarchists and football fans” were taking part.