CORRECTED-UPDATE 2-Lukashenko announces security shake-up to tighten grip on Belarus

29 Oct 2020 / 18:42 H.

    (Correct news interior minister's name to Kubrakov from Kurbakov in para 2)

    By Tom Balmforth

    MOSCOW, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko replaced his interior minister and named three security hawks to new roles on Thursday to tighten his grip on the country after nearly 12 weeks of mass protests.

    Ivan Kubrakov, who as head of police in the capital Minsk has led the crackdown on the biggest demonstrations, was appointed interior minister.

    His predecessor, Yuri Karayev, was one of three men named to new roles as presidential aides and "inspectors" responsible for key regions of the country.

    The reshuffle marked the latest move by Lukashenko to tighten security across the whole of the former Soviet republic in the face of demonstrations and strikes since a disputed presidential election on Aug. 9.

    His security forces have arrested more than 16,000 people since the vote, which the opposition says was rigged.

    United Nations investigators have reported many cases of severe beatings and torture - an accusation denied by Karayev, the outgoing interior minister, who has described the Belarusian police as one of the most humane police forces in the world.

    Lukashenko's position appears more secure after a national strike call by the opposition failed to bring the economy to a halt this week.

    But protests have continued, especially at universities, and tens of thousands of demonstrators have rallied each weekend since the election to demand an end to his 26-year rule.

    The two other two new presidential aides are Valery Vakulchik, who spent eight years as head of the KGB security police, and former deputy interior minister Alexander Barsukov.

    Barsukov will be responsible for Minsk, and Vakulchik and Karayev for the regions of Brest and Grodno, respectively.

    Both are western parts of the country close to its borders with NATO countries. Lukashenko, who staged military exercises in September with close ally Russia, has repeatedly alleged that NATO and the West are whipping up unrest in Belarus.

    Addressing the three new aides, Lukashenko said they were heading to very important areas of the country "in connection with the events that have occurred and are not yet over - we still don't know what this may result in".

    "Why you? You are military people, you're knowledgeable, you don't need to be brought up to speed and taught." (Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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