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Belarus authorities free detainees as protests grow

MINSK, Belarus — Authorities have freed at least 2,000 people detained amid demonstrations across Belarus after a disputed presidential election as they sought Friday to stem rising public anger over a brutal police crackdown on peaceful protests and avoid Western sanctions.

Many who were released spoke of brutal beatings and other abuse by police, and some showed bruises on their bodies. Some of them wept as they embraced waiting relatives.

Demonstrators have swarmed the streets ever since Sunday’s election in which officials reported that President Alexander Lukashenko won 80% of the vote to extend his 26-year authoritarian hold on power in Belarus.

The protests continued Friday as thousands again rallied across the country and Lukashenko’s main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled on Tuesday to neighboring Lithuania, posted a video in which she disputed the results of the vote and demanded that the government start a dialogue with demonstrators.

European Union foreign ministers are due to meet to discuss possible sanctions against Belarus.

Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured since Sunday as police have ferociously dispersed the largely peaceful demonstrations with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings. At least one person has been killed.

Thousands of factory workers who previously formed the core of Lukashenko’s base have joined the protests, denouncing the police crackdown and demanding a new election, raising the prospect of a nationwide strike.

“Our entire shop voted against Lukashenko and then we suddenly learned that he won by a landslide,” 42-year-old assembly worker Dmitry Glukhovsky said outside the Minsk Automobile Plant, or MAZ. “They not only have cheated us but also beaten us up, and no one is going to accept that.”

He said that his assembly shop went on strike Friday to demand a new election. More than 1,000 workers could be seen in the factory’s yard, shouting “Down!” in a call for Lukashenko to resign.

Another factory worker, 45-year-old electrician Viktor Konovalov, said a friend was detained during the crackdown.

“People will not forgive that,” he said. “We don’t need their excuses, we need a new election and a new government.

At the Minsk Tractor Plant, or MTZ, about 1,000 workers also rallied to demand Lukashenko’s resignation and then marched toward the government headquarters. As they reached the center of the capital, the crowds grew and people stood applauding and motorists honked in support.

Workers also rallied at many other major factories in an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and earned the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” for his relentless suppression of dissent.

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