'Go away': state factory workers join protests against Belarus president

MINSK (Reuters) – Workers from state-run industrial plants joined tens of thousands of people on a fifth day of protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, despite a violent crackdown that has prompted the West to consider new sanctions.

Protesters formed human chains and marched in Minsk, backed by at least ten television presenters and reporters from the tightly controlled state media who resigned in protest at the violence that followed Lukashenko’s contested re-election.

A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko is grappling to contain the biggest challenge in years to his rule of the country seen by neighbouring Russia as a strategic buffer against NATO and the European Union.

The protesters accuse 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.

Authorities began releasing some of the thousands of people detained this week. At least two protesters have died.

Some of those freed from a detention centre in Minsk had bruises and described being tightly packed inside cells. They complained of mistreatment, including beatings. A spokeswoman for the interior ministry declined immediate comment.

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Thursday’s protesters were joined by workers from some state-run industries that are the pride of Lukashenko’s Soviet-style economic model, including the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) that makes ‎trucks‎ and ‎buses.

Footage showed them chanting “elections” and “go away”. Local media also reported protests at the state-run haulage and earthmoving equipment manufacturer BelAZ in a town northeast of Minsk, and at the Grodno Azot chemical plant.

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In Minsk, ambassadors from EU countries laid flowers at the site where one protester died, as a crowd cheered and chanted.

“We are here to mourn the loss of life and also to show solidarity with the victims of the violence and abuse that has taken place over many Belarusian towns and cities over the last few days,” EU envoy Dirk Schuebel told reporters afterwards.

Lukashenko has sought better relations with the West amid strained ties with traditional ally Russia.

The EU partially lifted sanctions, imposed over Lukashenko’s human rights record, in 2016, but could introduce new measures as early as this month. Germany called on the EU to put pressure on Lukashenko.

Russia, which has nudged Lukashenko into accepting closer political and economic ties, expressed concern over what it depicted as attempts by external forces to destabilise Belarus.

The 65-year-old Lukashenko has ruled for more than a quarter of a century but faces increasing anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic – which he dismissed as a “psychosis” – a sluggish economy and human rights.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. human rights chief, has condemned the mass detentions “including bystanders, as well as minors, suggesting a trend of massive arrests in clear violation of international human rights standards”.

In Belarus’s southern neighbour Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration called for the release of two human rights activists, saying they were detained by Belarusian law enforcement “without any legal grounds”.

People outside the Okrestina detention centre in Minsk, some in tears, waited in the hope of gleaning news of friends and relatives inside. Police and soldiers with machine guns drove them away when they got too close.

Sergei, one of the freed detainees, said there had been 28 people in a cell that would normally contain five. Prisoners took turns to sleep, he said, and were given a single loaf of bread to share out over two days.

“They did not beat me in the cell, they took me out of the cell and beat me there,” said Sergei, who declined to give his last name.

Reuters could not independently verify his account.

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