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, and 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.
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As the protesters rallied on the square, Lukashenko dismissed them as puppets manipulated from abroad. During a meeting with top law enforcement officials, he defended the crackdown as a justified response to violence against police by some of the protesters. The Interior Ministry said 121 police officers were injured.
He told officials, however, to avoid excessive force.
“If a person falls down and lies still, don't beat him!” Lukashenko said.
The Belarusian leader cautioned people against turning out for protests, saying the country is facing foreign “aggression.”
“Don't get out into the streets. You should understand that you and your children are being used as cannon fodder,” Lukashenko said, alleging that people from Poland, the Netherlands, Ukraine and some members of Russia's opposition were fomenting the unrest.
“Do you want me to sit and wait until they turn Minsk upside down?” he said. “We won't be able to stabilize the situation afterwards. We must take a break, collect ourselves and calm down. And let us restore order and deal with those who have come here.”
The claim of foreign agitation was greeted with disdain by protesters.
“Nobody believes these horror stories about external forces. We are tired of constant enemies and conspiracies,"said Galina Erema, 42. “He usurped power and has not left for 26 years. This is the reason for the protests.”
A messaging app that has been a key communications means for protesters announced plans for marches on Sunday in Minsk and “other cities and hamlets of Belarus,” an indication that determination remains strong.
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.
“The authorities are obviously trying to de-escalate the situation and ease the tensions, fearing that the furious industrial workers will take to the streets all across Belarus,” said Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna rights center.
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.
The ferocious crackdown has left hundreds injured since Sunday as police have dispersed the largely peaceful demonstrations with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings. At least one person has been killed.
The brutal suppression of protests drew harsh criticism in the West. European Union foreign ministers said they rejected the election results and tasked officials with drawing up a list of people in Belarus who could face sanctions over their role in the crackdown.
“Work begins on sanctioning those responsible for violence and falsification,” tweeted EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
Earlier, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the EU wants to “significantly increase the pressure on Belarus.”
Thousands of factory workers who previously formed the core of Lukashenko's base have joined the protests, denouncing the police crackdown and demanding a new election, raising the prospect of a nationwide strike.
“Our entire shop voted against Lukashenko and then we suddenly learned that he won by a landslide,” 42-year-old assembly worker Dmitry Glukhovsky said outside the Minsk Automobile Plant, or MAZ. “They not only have cheated us but also beaten us up, and no one is going to accept that.”
He said that his assembly shop went on strike Friday to demand a new election. More than 1,000 workers could be seen in the factory's yard, shouting “Down!” in a call for Lukashenko to resign.
At the Minsk Tractor Plant, or MTZ, about 1,000 workers also rallied to demand Lukashenko's resignation and then marched toward the government headquarters. As they reached the center of the capital, the crowds grew and people stood applauding and motorists honked in support.
“We want a new election, a new government and a new life,” said 44-year-old engineer Mikhail Marchuk as he marched along with other plant workers toward central Minsk. “We will protest until we win.”
Workers also rallied at many other major factories in an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and earned the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” for his relentless suppression of dissent.
Earlier in the day, Lukashenko warned that the strikes would deepen the damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic and could lead to Belarus losing its niche in global markets.
After the crackdown, police stood back Thursday and Friday as protests grew in Minsk and other cities. Women, many dressed in white and carrying flowers and portraits of detained loved ones, formed human chains on Thursday as motorists honked in support. Dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms in the trash.
The demonstrations have spread even though they lack leaders. Tsikhanouskaya urged her supporters to stop protests in an earlier video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials while she was still in Minsk. The 37-year-old former teacher had joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May.
In the video released Friday, Tsikhanouskaya again challenged the election results, saying that copies of protocols from precincts where the vote was counted fairly show her winning 60% to 70%. She urged the government to end violence and engage in dialogue with protesters.
“The Belarusians will never want to live under the current government,” she said. “The authorities have turned peaceful demonstrations into a bloodbath.”
She also announced she was setting up a coordination council to help ensure a "peaceful transition of power.”
As Lukashenko faces new Western sanctions, he moved quickly to mend ties with his main sponsor and ally, Russia, after Belarus arrested 32 private Russian military contractors on charges of planning to stage riots before the election.
Moscow has rejected the accusations, saying the men were en route to another country, and alleged that their arrest was a provocation by Ukraine's spy agency that had fed misleading information about their mission to authorities in Minsk.
Russia's Prosecutor General Office said Friday the contractors have returned home. Another Russian arrested in Belarus, political consultant Vitaly Shklyarov, who also holds Belarusian citizenship, has remained in custody on charges of organizing riots, according to his lawyer.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.