Tens of thousands of people gathered in Belarus for a rally of a rival in the presidential election, despite the intensification of repression against the opposition.
According to the human rights group Viasna, more than 60,000 people demonstrated in the capital, Minsk.
The rally was organized by Svitlana Tikhanovska, who opposes the longtime president.
Alexander Lukashenko has faced a wave of protests over his application for a sixth term.
Lukashenko has exercised authoritarian control over Belarus in a style reminiscent of the Soviet era since taking office in 1994.
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Ms. Tikhanovska, a political novice, decided to run in the election after her husband was barred from running and imprisoned earlier this year.
Her supporters gathered in a square in Minsk for what, according to AFP, was the largest opposition protest in the country of the former Soviet Union in decades.
They waved flags and balloons printed with opposition slogans.
“People who want a decent life are not criminals,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said. “They are our people, people who want a peaceful change of government.”
“Please do not go against your conscience, do not go against your people,” she added.
Earlier, government officials accused Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, of collaborating with Russian mercenaries to disperse the election riots. The popular opposition blogger also faces other allegations.
Ms. Tikhanovska denied the allegations made during the intensified struggle against opposition activities.
Earlier on Thursday, authorities arrested 33 suspected mercenaries accused of “terrorism.” Russia has said it is seeking clarification on the arrests, and has denied knowledge of Wagner’s paramilitary group, in which Belarus suspects involvement.
Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Andrei Ravkov said investigators suspected that 200 Russian mercenaries had entered the country to “destabilize the situation during the election campaign.”
Mr Raukov said 14 of the detained Russians had fought in the Donbas conflict in Ukraine, describing their presence in Belarus as “a very unpleasant situation”.
UN investigators, the US military and journalists have documented Wagner’s operations in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic. The Russian government denies any ties to the group.
The Belarusian state news agency Belta named all 33 Russian suspects and indicated their dates of birth.
More about Wagner’s group:
The state TV channel “Belarus 1” showed that the Russians were arrested by the Belarusian KGB in a sanatorium. The video report (in Russian) said the group aroused suspicion because of their disciplined military-style behavior – for example, they avoided alcohol.
Video footage of the group’s arrest showed that they were carrying Sudanese currency and a Sudanese phone card. Wagner’s group is known to be active in Sudan, and it has been suggested that it used Belarus as a transit country for African operations.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday: “We know that 33 Russians were detained in Belarus yesterday. Two hundred are still at large. We do not know of any illegal activities that could be grounds for their detention.”
He also stated that in Russia there is no “such concept” as Wagner’s APC.