Tens of thousands of people flooded the heart of the Belarus capital of Minsk on Friday in a show of anger over a brutal police crackdown this week on peaceful protesters that followed a disputed election, as authorities sought to ease rising public fury by freeing at least 2,000 who were jailed after earlier demonstrations.
Factory workers marched across the city shouting “Go away!” in a call for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to resign after 26 years of iron-fisted rule that was extended in an election Sunday that protesters denounced as rigged.
Friday’s crowds grew to more than 20,000, filling central Independence Square. About a dozen soldiers guarding the nearby government headquarters lowered their riot shields in what the demonstrators saw as a sign of solidarity, and women rushed to embrace and kiss the guards. Earlier, police didn’t interfere as the protesters marched across the city, reflecting Lukashenko’s apparent attempt to assuage the opposition by stepping back from the violent police crackdowns seen across the country earlier this week.
The release by the Interior Ministry of about 2,000 of the nearly 7,000 people detained was seen as another move to defuse popular outrage. It said more would be freed. Many who were released spoke of brutal beatings and other abuse by police, and some showed bruises on their bodies. Some of them wept as they embraced waiting relatives.
Demonstrators have swarmed the streets ever since Sunday’s election in which officials reported that Lukashenko won 80% of the vote to win a sixth term in office. His main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled on Tuesday to neighboring Lithuania, posted a new video in which she disputed the results of the vote and demanded that the government start a dialogue with demonstrators.—AP