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Belarus sees walkouts, calls for weekend protests over vote crackdown

Crowds of workers heeded calls from the opposition to down tools and AFP journalists saw hundreds of employees gathered in uniforms and hard hats outside the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) and the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ).

People shout slogans during a protest rally against police violence during recent rallies of opposition supporters, who accuse strongman Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the presidential election, in Minsk on 14 August 2020. Picture: AFP

MINSK - The main challenger in Belarus's disputed presidential election called for mass weekend rallies and factory workers walked off the job on Friday as defiance mounted against strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko.

In a video address to supporters, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya appealed for an end to a police crackdown on post-election protests, as people detained during the demonstrations began to emerge from jail with harrowing accounts of beatings and torture.

Crowds of workers heeded calls from the opposition to down tools and AFP journalists saw hundreds of employees gathered in uniforms and hard hats outside the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) and the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ).

The workers at the tractor factory - which Lukashenko has held up as a national symbol - marched through the streets of the capital chanting "Leave!" and "Long live Belarus!"

Calls were growing for international action, with Germany throwing its weight behind a drive to level sanctions against Belarus as European Union foreign ministers met by video conference.

"Belarusians will never want to live with the previous government again. The majority do not believe in his victory," said Tikhanovskaya, who left the country for neighbouring Lithuania on Tuesday.

"I ask the mayors of all cities to organise peaceful mass gatherings in every city on August 15 and 16," she said.

In a statement published later, she 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.

Tikhanovskaya and her supporters dispute Lukashenko's claim to have won Sunday's election with 80% of the vote and 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.

'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 joined a hastily arranged video conference to discuss Belarus, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying she was "confident" they would back sanctions.

EU READIES SANCTIONS

German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said Chancellor Angela Merkel had been "shocked" by the detention and abuse of peaceful protesters.

"In our view sanctions against those responsible for human rights violations will have to be discussed," he said.

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

In a dramatic show of defiance on Thursday, thousands of people formed human chains and marched in Minsk, many wearing white and holding flowers and balloons, to protest against police brutality.

Similar human chains formed in half a dozen other cities.

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 with construction industry representatives, he rejected claims that he had fled the country and said strikes would threaten jobs.

"I am alive and not abroad," he said, before saying bosses should tell employees they risked hurting companies if they walked off the job.

"People must be told that this is the only chance they have to save the company. Save the company, you will feed your family," Lukashenko said.

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% of the vote, but Tikhanovskaya said the election was rigged and claimed victory, demanding that Lukashenko, 65, hand over power.

She left for Lithuania as allies said she came under official pressure.

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