MINSK, August 14 ------ The Belarusian leadership began releasing thousands of detainees and issued a rare public apology on Thursday in a bid to quell nationwide street protests that pose the biggest challenge to strongman President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. Hundreds of friends and relatives, many of them in tears, stood outside a detention center in Minsk waiting to give food, water and blankets to people emerging from inside in the early hours of Friday. Some of the protesters had bruises and described being tightly packed inside cells and complained of mistreatment. Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Barsukov denied the prisoners were abused and said all detainees would be freed by morning.
At least two protesters have died and around 6,700 were detained this week in a crackdown following Lukashenko’s contested re-election that has prompted the West to consider new sanctions on Minsk. The detainees’ release and the emollient tone used by two top state officials underscored the vulnerability of Lukashenko’s hold over a country seen by neighboring Russia as a strategic buffer against NATO and the European Union. “I take responsibility and apologize for injuries of random people at the protests who got it in the neck,” said Minister of Internal Affairs Yuri Karayev.
Tens of thousands of protesters on Thursday 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. Protesters formed human chains and marched in the capital, backed by at least 10 television presenters and reporters from the tightly controlled state media who resigned in solidarity.
The protesters accuse Lukashenko of rigging last Sunday’s presidential election to win a sixth term. The president, alleging a foreign-backed plot to destabilize the country, has dismissed the demonstrators as criminals and unemployed. 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.