Police in Belarus said Wednesday they had detained hundreds more people and used firearms against protesters in a third night of violence over a disputed presidential election.
Western governments have condemned the crackdown and the European Union said the bloc’s foreign ministers would discuss Belarus at an extraordinary meeting on Friday.
Protesters rallied again on Tuesday night to contest strongman President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim of having won Sunday’s election, although they were in smaller numbers after police cordoned off city centres and limited transport.
In the capital Minsk, protesters and witnesses said riot police used indiscriminate force against those who did gather, firing stun grenades and rubber bullets in the suburbs.
In the southwestern city of Brest on the Polish border, police said they had used firearms against a group of demonstrators armed with metal bars who had ignored warning shots, wounding one.
“A group of aggressive citizens with metal rods in their hands attacked police employees in Brest” on Tuesday, interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said in statement.
“Firearms were used to protect the lives and health of the employees,” she said, adding that “one of the attackers” was wounded.
The ministry said protesters gathered in 25 cities and towns on Tuesday night and that more than 1,000 people had been detained.
The latest arrests have brought the number of detentions to more than 6,000 after three days of protests.
More than 50 people sought medical assistance, it said.
Chemodanova said there had been smaller gatherings on Tuesday than on the two previous nights.
“The number of protesters was smaller last night, as was the number of cities where protests took place,” she told AFP.
Dozens of people have been wounded in the crackdown and police said that one protester died when an explosive device went off in his hand on Monday night.
– Women form human chain –
The protests broke out after authorities said Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, won 80 percent of the vote in Sunday’s polls.
Election officials said Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other potential opposition candidates including her husband were jailed, came second with 10 percent.
Tikhanovskaya said the vote was rigged and claimed victory, demanding that Lukashenko hand over power.
She left Belarus on Tuesday for neighbouring Lithuania, with supporters saying she came under pressure from authorities.
Protesters said Tuesday night’s crackdown in Minsk was especially violent, with videos released on social media showing police kicking protesters lying prone on the ground, smashing cars with truncheons and assaulting passers-by.
Yan, a 28-year-old paramedic from Minsk who has protested every night since the election, said police had become more aggressive.
“Things were scary last night, it was complete lawlessness,” he told AFP. “All of this is aimed at intimidating people so that they keep quiet.”
Oleg Gulak, the head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee rights group, said he was “stunned by the unprecedented level of cruelty and violence” used against protesters.
“Last night was the scariest night in Belarus’s modern history,” he said.
On Wednesday, several hundred women, many wearing white and holding flowers, joined hands to form a human chain in central Minsk urging an end to police violence.
Hundreds of people also gathered outside a pre-trial detention centre in Minsk in an effort to learn about the fate of missing family members.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Belarus would be discussed at Friday’s extraordinary meeting.
The bloc on Tuesday condemned the election as “neither free nor fair” and Borrell threatened sanctions against “those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results.”