Police in Belarus have arrested 15 demonstrators who were trying to prevent the removal of wooden crosses from a wooded area near the capital of Minsk where tens of thousands of people were executed under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The Kurapaty woods have strong significance for the beleaguered opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has retained many elements of the Soviet Union during his quarter-century in power.

Lukashenko last month complained about the crosses that opposition supporters had set up at Kurapaty, where Soviet secret police carried out mass executions. The number of estimated victims ranges from 30,000 all the way up to 200,000.

On Thursday, police closed off the perimeter of Kurapaty and forest workers began removing the crosses. Police say the protesters tried to interfere with the work.