Minsk (AFP) -
Belarus police on Sunday arrested dozens of people during a weekly protest that drew diminished crowds in support of protest figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya days after the strongman president staged a secret inauguration.
Tens of thousands of protesters including prominent athletes, drummers and a choir marched through Minsk despite rain but the column was visibly smaller compared to previous weekend protests against Alexander Lukashenko.
Armoured vehicles and water cannon were deployed on the streets ahead of the protest, several metro stations in central Minsk were closed, and the Palace of Independence, Lukashenko's residence, was heavily guarded by riot police and barriers.
Viasna rights group said more than 40 people were detained as police sought to break up the protest.
Police used tear gas in the second largest city of Gomel and stun grenades in the eastern city of Mogilev, Viasna added.
The opposition movement calling for an end to Lukashenko's regime has kept up a wave of large-scale demonstrations since his disputed win last month, with around 100,000 or more people taking to the streets on previous weekends.
Ahead of Sunday's march the top opposition Telegram channel, Nexta Live, which has more than two million subscribers, urged Belarusians to stage a symbolic 'people's inauguration of the real president' Tikhanovskaya.
Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory over Lukashenko in the election and has taken shelter in neighbouring Lithuania, said she supported the demonstrators.
'Today is the 50th day of our protests,' she said in a video address.
'We've come out to stop this regime, and we are doing this peacefully.'
Sunday's march came a day after riot police in balaclavas detained 150 people at women's rallies where protesters chanted 'Sveta the president'.
Central squares and shopping centres where protesters have sought refuge from violent police detentions during earlier rallies were closed, AFP journalists reported.
Over the past month riot police have detained thousands of protesters who have reported torture and abuse in custody, prompting international condemnation and proposed EU sanctions.
Several people have died in the crackdown.
Lukashenko has dismissed opposition calls for his resignation and sought help from Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who has promised military backup if needed and a $1.5 billion loan.
- Lukashenko 'has to go' -
Lukashenko, who has ruled ex-Soviet Belarus for 26 years, has also accused Western countries and NATO of supporting protesters or trying to destabilise the country.
He put his military on high alert after the vote and Belarus will host war games with several other ex-Soviet countries including Russia next month in what is being touted as a show of force against NATO.
European leaders have said they do not recognise, Lukashenko's re-election and promised to impose sanctions on Belarus for rigging the vote and waging a post-election crackdown on peaceful demonstrations.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday was scheduled to visit the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, which border Belarus and have expanded their own sanctions on Minsk along with Estonia.
On Sunday, he told the French weekly the Journal du Dimanche he was impressed with the courage of protesters and that it was clear Lukashenko 'has to go'.
Britain said this week it was coordinating with the United States and Canada on sanctions after EU penalties were stalled by Cyprus.
Authorities have jailed or forced out of the country many of Tikhanovskaya's allies who formed the leadership of the Coordination Council that is seeking new elections and the transfer of power.
One of her campaign partners, Maria Kolesnikova, has been imprisoned and charged with undermining national security.