Europe

Belarusian government issues rare apology as thousands form human chain

People greet each other waving flowers and balloons as they protest in the Belarus capital on 13 August. Source: AAP

The Belarusian government has issued a rare public apology in a bid to quell nationwide street protests.

An ally of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has issued a rare public apology in a bid to quell nationwide street protests that pose the biggest challenge to the strongman leader's 26-year rule.

At least two protesters have died and thousands have been detained this week in a crackdown following President Lukashenko's contested re-election that has prompted the West to consider new sanctions on Minsk.

The emollient tone used in statements by two top state officials underscored the vulnerability of his hold over a country seen by neighbouring Russia as a strategic buffer against NATO and the European Union.

Protest rally against the results of voting in the Belarusian presidential election in Minsk.
Protest rally against the results of voting in the Belarusian presidential election in Minsk.
Sipa USA Kommersant

Authorities have also begun releasing protesters, some of whom had bruises and described being tightly packed inside cells. They complained of mistreatment, including beatings.

"I take responsibility and apologise for injuries of random people at the protests who got it in the neck," said Minister of Internal Affairs Yuri Karayev on Thursday.

The protesters accuse President Lukashenko of rigging last Sunday's presidential election to win a sixth term. The president, alleging a foreign-backed plot to destabilise the country, has dismissed the demonstrators as criminals and unemployed.

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But another presidential ally, the head of a national state council Natalya Kochanova, said on Thursday that Lukashenko had ordered an urgent review of the detentions.

"We don't fight, we don't need war," she said. "By this evening more than a thousand people have been freed under an obligation of not taking part in unsanctioned events."

Thousands form human chains 

Several thousand men and women, many wearing white and holding flowers and balloons, held hands and walked through the capital Minsk to protest against police brutality during four nights of unrest since Sunday's vote.

The mood was more relaxed than on previous days as protesters strolled along a central street and lined main roads with drivers honking horns in support.

Supporters gave out free hot drinks and biscuits and police kept a low profile.

Similar human chains formed in half a dozen other cities, local media reported, while activists called for further protests at night.

People came out to contest the vote results and police used stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and, in at least one case, live fire to disperse the crowds.

At least two people have died and hundreds have been wounded in the violence while nearly 7,000 have been arrested.

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'Change!' 

On Thursday, demonstrators held placards reading "Change!" and "No violence" and wore white bracelets, one of the symbols of the opposition movement.

"We want to show that we, the women of our country, are against violence," said Yekaterina, a 38-year-old hairdresser wearing a white sweater and jacket and holding a bunch of white flowers.

Maria, a 35-year-old sales assistant, said she came out in her lunch break.

A woman holds flowers as people, some of them ethnic Belarusians, gather to support Belarusian opposition in Moscow, Russia, on 13 August.
A woman holds flowers as people, some of them ethnic Belarusians, gather to support Belarusian opposition in Moscow, Russia, on 13 August.
AAP

"We want people to be able to protest peacefully, after all they didn't want anything bad, just a fair count of the votes."

A religious procession of various Christian denominations also took place in Minsk while workers at a several factories reportedly held strikes.

'What can we do to help?' 

Russia's foreign ministry on Thursday denounced what it called "clear attempts at outside interference" aiming to destabilise its neighbour.

It said it was "concerned" at the "violations of public order."

The leaders of neighbouring Poland and the Baltic states urged Mr Lukashenko to "terminate the use of force against your people immediately." 

European Union foreign ministers are set to discuss possible new sanctions on Belarus at an extraordinary meeting on Friday.

"What can we do to help?" US 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 Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, to step down.

The interior ministry said it arrested 700 people at protests on Wednesday, bringing the total number detained since Sunday to more than 6,700. 

A senior politician on Thursday said Mr Lukashenko had ordered an investigation into the mass detention of protesters.

Senate Speaker Natalya Kochanova said on state television that Mr Lukashenko told officials to "get to the bottom of all cases of detentions", adding that "as of this evening, more than 1,000 people have been freed."

After large-scale gatherings in Minsk and other cities on Sunday, the protests have become scattered and smaller as police cordoned off city centres and shut down public transport.

'Inhumane actions'

The interior ministry said Wednesday that police opened fire on a group of protesters armed with metal rods in the southwestern city of Brest, wounding one.

Officials also confirmed a second death in the unrest, after police said one 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 gone out to see his girlfriend, not to take part in protests.

People wave flowers as they gather to protest during sunset in Minsk, Belarus, on 13 August.
People wave flowers as they gather to protest during sunset in Minsk, Belarus, on 13 August.
AAP

People detained in recent days have told the Guardian of beatings, of being packed into small cells, and of men being kept in stress positions for hours.

One woman named Kristina said she was arrested and taken to a holding centre on the outskirts of Minsk, where she and 10 other women were forced to strip naked on camera.

She told the Guardian she was later taken to a room where 10 naked men were made to kneel while being beaten.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Ms Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize, spoke of her shock at the "inhumane, satanic" actions of riot police and urged Mr Lukashenko to go peacefully.

Foreign-controlled 'sheep'

Other prominent Belarusians have joined calls for the violence to end.

Four-time Olympic biathlon champion Darya Domracheva wrote on Instagram: "Stop the violence. Do not allow this unjust horror to continue on the streets".

Several prominent journalists and presenters on state channels have tendered their resignations.

The protests broke out after authorities said Mr Lukashenko won 80 percent of the vote in Sunday's election to secure a sixth term.

People demonstrate in support of Belarus protesters in Warsaw, Poland, on 13 August.
People demonstrate in support of Belarus protesters in Warsaw, Poland, on 13 August.
AAP

Mr Lukashenko, 65, has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled "sheep". 

The protest movement arose in support of Ms 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 percent of the vote, but Ms Tikhanovskaya said the election was rigged and claimed victory, demanding that Mr Lukashenko hand over power.

She left for neighbouring Lithuania on Tuesday as allies said she came under official pressure.

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