Belarus strongman faces growing opposition and new EU sanctions

©Agence France-Presse

Protesters in Minks raise lit mobile phones near Government House in Independence Square during a rally against a violent police crackdown following the disputed presidedntial election

Minsk (AFP) - Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko faced mounting opposition on Friday to his disputed re-election as factory workers joined popular protests and the European Union moved to impose new sanctions on his regime.

In euphoric scenes on Independence Square in the capital Minsk, protesters hugged and kissed young interior ministry troops guarding a government building and put flowers in their anti-riot shields.

Unlike the scenes of violent detentions days earlier, police stood by quietly.

The opposition movement gained momentum as large groups of workers from huge tractor and automobile factories downed tools for the first time and marched to the central square, chanting for Lukashenko to "Leave!," and "Long live Belarus!".

Protesters danced and sang and waved lit-up mobile phones before gradually dispersing over the evening without police making arrests.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in Sunday's polls, called for further protests against Lukashenko at the weekend.

"Belarusians will never want to live with the previous government again. The majority do not believe in his victory," Tikhanovskaya said in a video address after leaving home for neighbouring EU country Lithuania on Tuesday.

Tikhanovskaya and her supporters dispute Lukashenko's claim to have won Sunday's election with 80 percent of the vote and tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Minsk and other cities over the past six days.

Police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades and, in at least one case, live rounds to disperse the crowds, with hundreds injured. 

Tikhanovskaya announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to "help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities".

She demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the police crackdown

Electric shocks

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including one man who died during a demonstration in Minsk and another who died in custody after being arrested in the southeastern city of Gomel.

Opposition supporters were expected to gather on Saturday for the funeral of the man who died in Minsk and for a "March for Freedom" in the capital on Sunday.

At least 6,700 people have been arrested since the start of the protests, but in a surprise move on Thursday officials announced they would start releasing detainees. The interior ministry said Friday that more than 2,000 had so far been set free.

Detainees emerging from a detention centre in Minsk told AFP they had been beaten and deprived of food, water, sleep and medical care.

Mikhail Chernenkov, a 43-year-old entrepreneur, said he was given electric shocks and beaten with sticks in a police station, showing AFP his bruised buttocks.

"This is torture," he said, adding that like many others he was forced to sleep outside because cells were overcrowded. He also said he did not take part in the protests.

In a statement, Amnesty International condemned "a campaign of widespread torture and other ill-treatment by the Belarusian authorities who are intent on crushing peaceful protests by any means."

EU foreign ministers at a hastily arranged video conference on Friday agreed to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions.

EU readies sanctions

Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde said in a tweet that the "EU will now initiate a process of sanctions against those responsible for the violence, arrests and fraud in connection with the election."

Belarus's Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in an earlier call with his Swiss counterpart that Minsk was ready for "constructive and objective dialogue with foreign partners" on the election and its aftermath. 

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled "sheep" and "people with a criminal past who are now unemployed".

In a televised meeting on Friday he claimed people had arrived from Poland, Ukraine and the Netherlands as well as from Russian opposition groups and were using protesters as "cannon fodder."

Meeting security chiefs, he urged restraint against protesters, saying: "If someone has already fallen and is lying there, you shouldn't beat him up."

Russia announced that Belarus had handed over 32 of its citizens who were detained in Minsk ahead of polls and accused of attempting to destabilise the country and spark riots.

The protest movement arose in support of Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran for president after potential opposition candidates including her husband were jailed.

The official results gave her 10 percent of the vote, but Tikhanovskaya said the election was rigged and claimed victory, demanding that Lukashenko, 65, hand over power.

She went to Lithuania after senior law enforcement officials held a meeting with her and her allies said she was pressured to leave.