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Thousands in Belarus form ‘lines of solidarity’ in protest

A police officer keeps guard as people gather during a rally against the results of the country's presidential election outside the Belarusian Automobile Plant (BelAZ) in Zhodino, about 50 km (31 miles) north-east of Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Hundreds of people were back on the streets of Belarus' capital on Thursday morning, forming long "lines of solidarity" in protest against an election they say was rigged to extend the rule of the country's authoritarian leader and against a crackdown on rallies that followed the vote. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Crowds of protesters in Belarus swarmed the streets and thousands of workers rallied outside industrial plants Thursday to denounce a police crackdown on demonstrations over a disputed election that extended the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

In several areas of the capital, Minsk, hundreds of women formed long “lines of solidarity.” Many were dressed in white and carried flowers and portraits of loved ones who have been detained during protests that began shortly after Sunday’s vote, which they said was rigged.

The human chains grew quickly, and by early afternoon filled the main central squares and avenues. Motorists honked in support. In Minsk and many other cities, thousands of factory workers also rallied against the police violence, raising the prospect of strikes in a new challenge to the government.

Amid growing public dismay, dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms and insignia in the trash. Several popular anchors at Belarus’ state TV stations have quit.

Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured in the clampdown on demonstrators protesting the official results that said Lukashenko won 80% of the vote and his top opposition challenger got only 10%. Police have broken up protests with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings.

“Belarusians have seen the villainous face of this government. I argued with my husband and voted for Lukashenko. And this is what I got in the end — I can’t find my relatives in prisons,” said Valentina Chailytko, 49, whose husband and son were detained in protests Sunday. She has been unable to get any information on their whereabouts.

“I wonder how Lukashenko could keep ruling,” she added.

One protester died Monday in Minsk after, the Interior Ministry says, an explosive device he tried to throw at police blew up in his hand. Some media reports have challenged that official version. Neither the ministry nor the media outlets have provided evidence.

Thousands of people converged Thursday on the place where he died, many carrying flowers. European ambassadors also laid flowers at the site earlier in the day.

The authorities also confirmed that a detainee died in the southeastern city of Gomel, but the circumstances of his death weren’t immediately clear.

The unprecedented public opposition and unrest has been driven by the painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and Lukashenko’s swaggering dismissal of the outbreak as a “psychosis.” The vote and the brutality of the subsequent crackdown — remarkable even for Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule — have made the anger boil over. The 65-year-old former state farm director has been in power since 1994 and was nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” by the West for his suppression of dissent.

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