Moscow — Authorities in Belarus have released thousands of people detained during unprecedented nationwide protests against long-time President Alexander Lukashenko. The government appeared eager to calm the situation, but as freed protesters' relayed accounts of horrific treatment in detention, the the demonstrations continued for a sixth day on Friday.
At least two protesters died and authorities arrested about 6,700 people during a violent police crackdown on the demonstrations earlier this week.
The unrest was sparked by Lukashenko's declared landslide victory in a Sunday presidential election. Many in Belarus, along with a number of foreign governments, believe the vote in the tiny country, often referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship," was rigged.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Radio Free Europe earlier this week that the U.S. was "incredibly troubled by the election and deeply disappointed that it wasn't more free and more fair." He said the U.S. would work with its European partners on a response, but indicated that expected fuel shipments to Belarus could be affected.
On Thursday night and early Friday morning, dozens of people walked out of a detention center outside the capital of Minsk. They were greeted by a large crowd of people hoping to find friends and loved ones who had vanished for days without a trace.
But many of those arrested during the protests remained missing Friday, and family members were getting increasingly desperate. Some showed photos of their missing loved ones to the released detainees on their cell phones Thursday night outside the detention center, hoping for any information.
"A sea of blood"
Videos from outside the detention center showed released protesters sharing accounts of alleged beatings and mistreatment in what they described as overcrowded cells. Some said they were forced to stand or lie face-down on concrete floors for hours without much food or water.
Several men showed severe bruises and scars, purportedly from police beatings.
"There were beatings outside and in the cells," one woman said in a video posted by independent Belarusian news outlet Tut.by. "There was a sea of blood."
Independent online Russian news outlet Znak.com released a report Thursday by one of its journalists, Nikita Telizhenko, who described in chilling detail his 16 hours in detention.
"Blows, screams, cries could be heard from everywhere," Telizhenko wrote.
He was freed along with another reporter who had been covering the protests, from Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, after the Russian Embassy in Minsk intervened.
Belarus' Interior Minister Yuri Karayev apologized on Thursday for "random people at the protests" being injured, and for violence against journalists.
Another senior official, Natalya Kochanova, also sought to quell the unrest, releasing a televised statement on behalf of Lukashenko saying the president heard the voices of the labor unions backing the protests and had ordered an investigation into the arrests.
"We don't need a fight, we don't need war," she said.
Protests continue, pressure mounts
While the number of people taking to the streets has fallen over the course of the week, workers from some major state-run industries have joined the protests, mounting further pressure on Lukashenko amid calls for an election do-over.
About a dozen journalists have also announced their resignations from state-controlled media in protest over the government's actions.
Peaceful protesters formed new human "chains of solidarity" in Minsk early Friday morning. Dozens of women, many wearing white or holding flowers, lined up along the city roads. Photos posted online showed posters reading: "We are for peace" and "Stop beating our men."
Lukashenko's government has been under pressure from the European Union over its human rights record for years, but in 2016 the EU partially lifted sanctions against Minsk. This week's crackdown on the protesters has seen EU officials talk about rolling those sanctions back.
Russia, an ally to Lukashenko, is interested in forging even closer political ties with Belarus. Moscow has voiced concern over what it described vaguely as attempts by external forces to destabilize the situation in the small neighboring state.
Lukashenko, 65, has ruled his country with an iron fist for 26 years, going to considerable lengths to stifle opposition.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher without any prior political experience, emerged as his main challenger in the Sunday vote after her husband, an opposition blogger who had hoped to run for president, was arrested in May.
Tikhanovskaya managed to unite fractured opposition groups and drew tens of thousands to her campaign rallies.
Her supporters believe she would have won Sunday's election if it had been fair, but the official results gave her just 10% of the votes. Tikhanovskaya left Belarus under pressure and is now taking refuge in neighboring Lithuania.
In a video posted online Friday, Tsikhanouskaya, asked her supporters to support an official investigation into the election. She also called for an end to the violence, and urged local leaders to help coordinate continued peaceful demonstrations.