Thousands of protesters rallied in Belarus's capital and other cities for a fourth straight night last night, decrying an election they say was rigged to extend the 26-year rule of the country's authoritarian leader and the crackdown on the subsequent demonstrations.
In several parts of Minsk, groups of hundreds of people formed human chains. Motorists blared horns in support and, in some areas, slowed to a crawl to block police vehicles. On one avenue, people stood on balconies, clapping in an expression of support. A group of riot police arrived and fired rubber bullets at them.
Similar protests were held in at least five other cities, according to the Viasna rights group, to contest the official election results which show President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term with 80pc of Sunday's vote and the main opposition challenger garnered 10pc. Crowds have taken to the streets every night since to demand a recount.
Earlier in the day, groups of hundreds of women formed human chains in several districts of Minsk, chanting "Shame!" and calling for an end to the crackdown on the demonstrations. Hesitant to use force against all-women rallies, police dispersed them without violence.
But in recent nights, authorities have responded with a level of brutality remarkable even during Mr Lukashenko's rule. Police have dispersed protesters with tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets and severely beat them with truncheons. Officers chased protesters into residential buildings and deliberately targeted journalists, beating many and breaking their cameras.
"We stand for a peaceful protest," said Ksenia Ilyashevich (23), an IT specialist who joined other women at a Minsk protest earlier yesterday. "We worked up the courage and came out to rally. We stand here for all."
In three previous nights of protests, at least 6,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured, according to the official count, but even that high toll appeared to downplay the scope. Anguished relatives were besieging prisons across Belarus trying to find their missing relatives.
"Even those who were loyal saw the real face of this government during the past three days," said Galina Vitushko (63), who stood outside a jail in Minsk, trying to find her son, a 43-year old doctor. She said that she desperately needs to give him insulin since he has diabetes.
"How can you treat your own people like that?" she asked, breaking into tears. "The real winners don't behave like that."
Mr Lukashenko (65) has led the former Soviet state of 9.5 million people since 1994, relentlessly stifling dissent and winning the nickname "Europe's last dictator" in the West.
This year, the economic damage caused by the coronavirus and the president's swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as "psychosis," has fuelled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks - but Mr Lukashenko has dismissed them.
"The core of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and (those who are) currently unemployed," Mr Lukashenko said during a meeting yesterday with security officials.
His top challenger, a 37-year-old former teacher and political novice Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, managed to unite fractured opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies after two top potential challengers were barred from the race. She entered the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger who aspired to run but has been in jail since his arrest in May.
But she abruptly left for neighbouring Lithuania on Tuesday, hours after submitting a formal request for a recount. In a video recorded before departure that her associates said was filmed under pressure from law enforcement officials, she urged her supporters to end protests.
Protesters have not heeded her call, and Maria Kolesnikova, a top figure in Ms Tikhanouskaya's campaign, urged the government yesterday to "stop waging a war against its own people and begin a dialogue",