Thousands of people have taken to the streets of the capital of Belarus for a fifth consecutive day of protests against an election they say was rigged to extend the rule of the country’s longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Large groups of people formed long “lines of solidarity” in several areas of Minsk on Thursday to demonstrate against a crackdown on rallies that followed the vote.
More than 100 women carrying flowers and portraits of their loved ones arrested during protests gathered in the southwestern part of the city, where police had shot rubber bullets at people chanting and clapping on balconies the night before.
“Belarusians have seen the villainous face of this government. I argued with my husband and voted for Lukashenko. And this is what I got in the end – I can’t find my relatives in prisons,” said Valentina Chailytko, 49, whose husband and son were arrested during protests on Sunday. Chailytko still cannot find any information about their whereabouts.
Thousands of people have rallied all across Belarus since Sunday, demanding a recount of the ballot that gave Lukashenko a landslide victory with 80 percent of the vote, and his top opposition challenger only 10 percent.
Police moved aggressively to break up the protests with batons, stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. One protester died on Monday in Minsk, and many were injured.
Radio Liberty in Belarus reported that one more man died in a hospital in the city of Gomel, southeastern Belarus, after being arrested by police.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-nation bloc would review its relations with Belarus and consider “measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the election in Belarus was not “free and fair” and urged the government to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters.
Lukashenko derided the political opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters and promised to continue taking a tough position on protests.
“The core of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and [those who are] currently unemployed,” the Belta news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying at a meeting with security officials on Wednesday.
About 6,000 people have been arrested this week, according to the Belarusian interior ministry.
Belarus’s Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe into mass rioting – a charge that implies lengthy prison terms.