Belarusian leader reshuffles security chiefs in face of mass protests

Siarhei LESKIEC / AFP

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko promoted hardline loyalists to top posts in his security apparatus in an effort to strengthen his grip on the country after weeks of mass protests.

Lukashenko, facing the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule, accompanied the reshuffle with instructions to act tough in the face of what he has repeatedly alleged is foreign aggression ahead of talks with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and a Russian government delegation.

"The country is working, although many, especially our neighbours, would like us to collapse," Lukashenko said, referring to the European Union states bordering Belarus.

Retaining the loyalty of the security forces, who have helped him crack down hard on dissent, is vital to Lukashenko as he tries to crush protests that show no sign of abating after nearly four weeks.

The reshuffle included the appointment of a new security council chief, a new head of the KGB security service and the promotion of the mayor of Minsk to the post of deputy prime minister.

The political crisis in Belarus erupted after a presidential election on Aug. 9 which protesters say he massively rigged to ensure a phoney landslide win. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition candidate was the real winner, they say. Thousands of people have repeatedly taken to the streets.

Belarus is a close ally of Moscow, which sees it as a vital strategic buffer between Russia and NATO. President Vladimir Putin has said the Kremlin had set up a reserve police force at Lukashenko's request but it would be deployed only if necessary.

During talks with his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said it was paramount to "completely eliminate external interference in the internal political processes of Belarus".

Lukashenko has provided no evidence that foreign powers are behind the protests. The opposition has denied this, and NATO has also denied his allegations that it is massing forces near the Belarusian border.

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