Belarus appears to block news media websites as opposition leader calls for more protests

Several news media websites appeared to be blocked in Belarus on Saturday, as the country’s exiled opposition leader called for more mass protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said in a statement on Saturday that more than 20 sites had been blocked, including those of U.S.-funded Radio Liberty and Belsat, a Polish-funded satellite TV channel focusing on Belarus.

The state publishing house also stopped printing top independent newspapers the “Narodnaya Volya” and “Komsomolskaya Pravda,” citing equipment malfunctions on Friday, the statement said.

“The Belarusian Association of Journalists links the blocking of internet resources and the disruption of print publications with the government’s attempt to block information about post-election protests in the country,” the media body said.

It came as Lukashenko’s main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called for another march this Sunday, after an estimated 200,000 protesters rallied last weekend in the capital, Minsk.

“We are closer than ever to our dream,” she said in a video message from Lithuania, where she fled for security reasons after Lukashenko declared victory over her in the presidential election with 80 percent of the vote, earlier this month.

Opponents say the election was rigged to disguise the fact that he has lost public support, a claim Lukashenko refutes. Since then, there have been widespread demonstrations with at least two protesters killed and thousands detained, although some were later released. Dozens of protesters and police officers have also been injured.

In a separate interview with the Reuters news agency Tsikhanouskaya said she saw herself as a symbol of change, whose role was to help deliver new elections, adding that she felt duty-bound to do what she could to support protesters in her home country but would not run for president again.

“During the campaign I didn’t see myself as a politician but I pushed myself forward,” said the former English teacher who emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to take her husband’s place in the election campaign after he was jailed. “I don’t see myself in politics. I am not a politician.”

Tsikhanouskaya said that Lukashenko’s authority was badly damaged, adding that she had received calls of support from international leaders, including Britain and Germany.

Lukashenko has blamed western countries and the United States for the unrest.

“The U.S. is planning and directing everything, and the Europeans are playing up to it,” Lukashenko said while visiting a state farm Friday.

The U.S. on Thursday described the Belarus presidential election as neither free nor fair and urged authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition council. European Union leaders are also preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials.

Lukashenko bluntly rejected Western offers to mediate between his government and the opposition, telling the U.S. and the E.U. to mind their own business.

“They should sort out their own affairs first,” he said.

He has also appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help. Belarus is bound to Russia by a mutual defense treaty along with deep historic, political and cultural ties.

Despite the two leaders having a frosty personal relationship, Putin has offered assistance, if required and warned against outside involvement in Belarus.