Belarus police said they had detained more than 6,000 people as protests over the country’s disputed presidential election continued on Wednesday for a fourth day.
Belarusian authorities have violently cracked down on protests across the country against strongman president Alexander Lukashenko’s contested victory in Sunday’s vote, extending his 26-year rule of the former Soviet state until 2025.
The demonstrations had begun peacefully on Sunday evening before police attacked protesters, some of whom erected barricades and let off fireworks to defend themselves.
Despite a widespread internet blackout, footage has circulated on the Telegram messaging app showing riot police beating people with batons, ramming cars and shooting rubber bullets at apartment blocks.
Police have also confirmed that they used live rounds in the western city of Brest as warning shots to fend off a crowd of protesters allegedly attacking them with metal bars. One person died in the capital Minsk on Monday when an explosive device protesters said was thrown by police went off in his hand.
More than 250 people were injured in the clashes since Sunday, according to police, although activists said the true figure was likely to be much higher. Those arrested included dozens of journalists from Belarus and Russia, many of whom were beaten and held without access to communications for several days, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
On Wednesday, after Belarus’s internet went back online, protesters gathered outside jails to demand information about detained relatives. In one video circulating on social media, guards viciously beat protesters as they lay face down in a yard. In another, relatives chanted “Hang in there!” after hearing people cry out in pain from the prison.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said during a European visit: “we were incredibly troubled by the election and deeply disappointed that it wasn’t more free and more fair”.
“We haven’t settled out what the appropriate response is,” he said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty adding the US would confer with its European friends and act in a “multilateral way”.
“I’m sure we’ll look at each of these things,” he said, citing the possibility of sanctions or the US stopping oil shipments to Belarus. He said the US would do what was best for the Belarusian people.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition candidate who had drawn large crowds in the run-up to the disputed vote, fled Belarus for Lithuania on Tuesday under apparent pressure from the Belarusian security services. Other members of her team have been jailed.
Mr Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former collective farm boss, has blamed the violence on “foreign puppetmasters” manipulating Belarusian citizens.
“Most of these so-called protesters are people who have criminal pasts or are out of a job. They can’t get work so they wander the streets,” Mr Lukashenko told his security council. “So I have some friendly advice and a warning for everyone: if you don’t have a job, you should get one.”
On Wednesday, police detained two men who allegedly “co-ordinated mass disturbances” and paraded one of them on television alongside large sums of cash they said he used to pay protesters.
Two Russian activists from Open Russia, a banned group funded by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, have also been charged with “participating in mass disturbances”. Open Russia said the pair were attempting to observe the election and had no formal accreditation.