President Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and threatened opposition leaders with criminal charges.

Protesters with posters reading
Protesters with posters reading "Stop the violence" gather in front of the Minsk Tractor Works Plant to support workers leaving the plant after their work shift in Minsk, Belarus, August 19, 2020. (AP)

Belarusian authorities have opened a criminal probe against opposition activists who set up a council to negotiate the transition of power amid massive protests challenging the extension of the 26-year rule of the country's authoritarian leader in a vote the opposition saw as rigged.

Following up on President Alexander Lukashenko's statement on Thursday, the prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against the opposition activists on charges of undermining national security, and a leading opposition figure reported being threatened with arrest.

The 65-year-old Belarusian leader dismissed the European Union's criticism of the August 9 vote and told its leaders to mind their own business.

The EU's leaders on Wednesday rejected the official results of the election that showed Lukashenko win 80 percent of the vote and expressed solidarity with protesters. The EU said it’s preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for the brutal post-election police actions.

READ MORE: Belarus leader warns of tough new steps against protesters

Massive police crackdown

During the first four days of protests, police detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three protesters died.

The crackdown fueled massive outrage and swelled protesters’ ranks, forcing authorities to change tactics and stop breaking up crowds that grew to an unprecedented 200,000 on Sunday.

Protests continued on Thursday in Minsk and other Belarusian cities for the 12th straight day.

READ MORE: Tens of thousands of Belarusians join "March for Freedom" in Minsk

After standing back for days, police again beefed up their presence on the streets of the Belarusian capital on Wednesday, blocking access to some government buildings and also deploying in numbers outside major factories where workers have been on strike since Monday.

The industrial action that has engulfed major factories across the country cast a tough challenge to Lukashenko, who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base.

In a bid to stop the strike from spreading, Lukashenko on Wednesday said that the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from the opposition pressure.

Hundreds of state TV employees have also gone on strike, shaking the government’s control of the media.

READ MORE: EU leaders urge Putin to push for talks in Belarus as more workers strike

New opposition body

Opponents of Lukashenko, a gruff former collective farm boss in power for 26 years, unveiled the Coordination Council on Tuesday with the stated aim of negotiating a transfer of power.

The Belarusian leader also warned members of the council who held their first meeting on Wednesday that they could face criminal responsibility for their attempt to create “parallel power structures.”

Its dozens of members include a Nobel Prize-winning author and the ousted head of Minsk's main drama theatre, as well as exiled presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose followers say she won the election.

The general prosecutor's office described the body as designed to seize power, calling the act of setting it up a threat to national security, Russia's RIA news agency reported. No individuals were named as suspects in the case.

The council issued a statement rejecting the accusations and saying its efforts were lawful.

"The accusation is completely baseless and without foundation. Our goal is to resolve the crisis without conflict. We are not calling for the seizure of power," council member Syarhei Dyleuski, leader of a committee of striking workers at the Minsk Tractor Factory, told Reuters.

The council called for a new presidential vote organised by newly formed election commissions and demanded an investigation into the crackdown on protests and compensation for the victims.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies