Thousands of protesters formed human chains and marched in Belarus on Thursday in a growing wave of peaceful demonstrations over President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election and an ensuing brutal police crackdown, The Moscow Times reported.
Men and women, many wearing white and holding flowers, took to the streets of the capital Minsk to protest against police brutality during four nights of unrest since Sunday’s vote.
Lukashenko’s opponents accuse him of rigging the election to defeat his main rival, popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has left the ex-Soviet country for neighboring Lithuania.
Protesters took to the streets across the country to contest the vote results but police used stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and, in at least one case, live fire to disperse protesters.
At least two people have died and hundreds have been wounded in the violence while nearly 7,000 have been arrested.
On Thursday, some demonstrators held placards reading “Change!” and “No violence” and sported white bracelets that have become a symbol of the opposition movement.
“We are against violence, against explosions on our streets, we are in favour of freeing all the detained,” Nastya, a 26-year-old protester, told AFP. “We support honest elections, and an honest recount, it’s necessary for votes to be recounted honestly.”
Maria, a 35-year-old sales assistant, said she came out in her lunch break.
“We want people to be able to protest peacefully, after all they didn’t want anything bad, just a fair count of the votes,” she said.
A religious procession of various Christian denominations also took place in Minsk while workers at a number of factories across the country reportedly downed tools.
Several dozen performers from the Belarusian State Philharmonic staged a rally in Minsk, singing and holding up letters of the alphabet reading: “They stole our voices.”
Similar spontaneous rallies were reported in other cities.
‘What can we do to help?’
Western governments have criticized the violence, and EU foreign ministers are set to discuss Belarus at an extraordinary meeting on Friday.
“What can we do to help?” U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk said on Twitter in response to a call to help Belarusians.
Prominent Belarusians including Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich have condemned the violence and urged Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, to step down.
The interior ministry said 700 more people had been arrested for taking part in illegal protests on Wednesday, bringing the total number detained since Sunday to more than 6,700.
The ministry said there had been fewer demonstrations Wednesday than on previous nights but that “the level of aggression towards law enforcement officers remains high.”
After large-scale gatherings in Minsk and other cities on Sunday, the protests have become scattered and smaller as police cordoned off city centers and shut down public transport.
On Wednesday evening groups of flag-waving opposition supporters blocked roads in the capital’s suburbs.
The interior ministry said on Wednesday its forces had used firearms on a group of protesters armed with metal rods in the southwestern city of Brest.
Officials also confirmed the second death in the unrest, after police said a first protester died on Monday when an explosive device went off in his hand.
The Belarusian Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said a 25-year-old man died after he was detained on Sunday in the southeastern city of Gomel and sentenced to 10 days in prison.
His mother told local media he had heart problems and had been out to see his girlfriend, not to take part in protests.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize for her work chronicling life under the Soviet regime, expressed outrage at the “inhumane, satanic” actions of riot police and urged Lukashenko to go peacefully.
Other prominent Belarusians have joined calls for the violence to end.
Belarus’s four-time Olympic biathlon champion Darya Domracheva posted a call on her Instagram account urging riot police to “Stop the violence. Do not allow this unjust horror to continue on the streets.”
Several prominent journalists and presenters working for state media have also resigned in recent days in protest.
The protests broke out after authorities said Lukashenko won 80% of the vote in Sunday’s election to secure a sixth term.
Lukashenko, 65, has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled “sheep.”
The protest movement arose in support of Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran for president after potential opposition candidates including her husband were jailed.
The official results gave her 10% of the vote, but Tikhanovskaya said the election was rigged and claimed victory, demanding that Lukashenko hand over power.
She left for neighboring Lithuania on Tuesday as allies said she came under official pressure.