Tens of thousands of people have gathered in Belarus to assemble a presidential rival, despite escalating action against the opposition.
According to one human rights group, Viasny, more than 60,000 people performed in the capital Minsk.
The assembly was organized by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who opposes the long-term president.
Alexander Lukashenko faced a wave of protests against his offer for a sixth term.
Lukashenko has exercised authoritarian control over Belarus in a style reminiscent of the Soviet era since his inauguration in 1994.
- The ban on Belarusian voters is provoking protests
Tikhanov, a political newcomer, decided to run in the election after her husband was expelled and imprisoned earlier this year.
Her supporters gathered in the square in Minsk, which was reported by the AFP news agency as the largest opposition protest in the former Soviet country in the last ten years.
They waved flags and balloons printed with opposition slogans.
“People who want a dignified life are not criminals,” said MEP Tikhanov. “They are our people, the people who want a peaceful change of power.”
“Please don’t go against your conscience, don’t go against your people,” she added.
Authorities have previously accused Ms. Tikhanovsky’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, of working with Russian mercenaries to cause unrest before the election. The popular opposition blogger also faces additional fees.
Ms Tikhanovska denied the allegations made during the intensive crackdown on opposition activities.
Early Thursday, authorities arrested 33 suspected mercenaries and accused them of plotting “terrorism.” Russia said it was trying to clarify the arrests and deny the knowledge of the Wagnerian paramilitary group, which Belarus suspects of participation.
The secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, Andrey Ravkov, said that investigators suspected that up to 200 Russian mercenaries had entered the country in order to “destabilize the situation during the election campaign”.
Ravkov said that 14 detained Russians were fighting in the Ukrainian conflict with Donbas and described their presence in Belarus as a “very unpleasant situation”.
Reports from UN investigators, the US military and journalists document Wagner’s operations in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic. The Russian government denies any links with the group.
The Belarusian state news agency Belta named all 33 Russian suspects and stated their dates of birth.
Read more about the Wagner Group:
The state television channel Belarus 1 showed that the Belarusian KGB arrested the Russians in a sanatorium. According to a video report (in Russian), the group expressed suspicion of disciplined military-style behavior – for example, they avoided alcohol.
A video of the group’s arrest showed that she had a Sudanese currency and a Sudanese phone card with them. The Wagnerian group is known to be active in Sudan, and there is speculation that it is using 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 hundred people are still at large.
He also said that in Russia “there is no such concept” as the “Wagner PMC”.