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Belarusian women rally in solidarity with injured protesters

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Nearly 200 women gathered in Belarus' capital on Wednesday to show solidarity with protesters injured in the latest rallies against the results of the country’s presidential election after police assaulted journalists, fired guns and broke into residential buildings to make arrests.

Young women carrying flowers held hands and formed a long line near a market in central Minsk. After a while they marched down the city's streets, chanting “Shame!" and decrying police violence against participants in protests that resulted in at least 6,000 being detained.

“We stand for a peaceful protest,” Ksenia Ilyashevich, a 23-year-old IT specialist, told The Associated Press. “We worked up the courage and came out to rally... Hundreds and thousands of Belarusians express solidarity with us, but are afraid (to come out). We stand here for all.”

Similar gatherings of women were reported elsewhere in Minsk and in other cities.

The Central Election Commission reported Monday that President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in Sunday’s election with 80% of the vote. Top opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who had attracted massive crowds at campaign events where voters expressed frustration with the authoritarian Lukashenko’s 26-year rule, got just 10%.

Thousands have demonstrated in Minsk and dozens of other cities for three nights to contest the election results. Police deployed to break up the post-election protests on Sunday and Monday used batons, stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. One protester died Monday in Minsk, and scores were injured.

The crackdown intensified on Tuesday. The Interior Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that one person in the city of Brest on the border with Poland received a gunshot wound after officers fired on protesters who attacked them with metal rods.

In Minsk, reporters from several Belarusian and international outlets were beaten up. Officers seized memory cards from a group of photographers, including one for the AP, as they took shots of the police crackdown.

“A deliberate hunt for journalists with independent Belarusian and foreign media has begun,” said Boris Goretsky, vice president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. He said 25 reporters are currently in custody, awaiting their turn to face a court, and three more were sentenced to 10 to 15 days of administrative arrest.

A prominent editor at a popular Belarusian newspaper went missing on Monday night. Yegor Martinovich, editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva, managed to send his colleagues an “SOS” message on Monday evening, and no one has heard from him ever since. Reporters suspect he had been detained, while the Interior Ministry says he is being “looked for.”

Belarusian human rights group Viasna said many injured protesters were afraid to seek medical help, fearing prosecution for participating in the rallies.

“We have information that medical workers are obligated to report all injuries and wounds to the police, and doctors see the protesters not as victims but rather as enemies of Belarus’ stability,” Viasna lawyer Pavel Sapelko said.

Eduard Kukhterin, 56, was injured with two rubber bullets overnight, but decided not to go to a hospital. “Paramedics warned me that if I go to the hospital, I will end up behind bars as a protester. Medical workers report such injuries to the law enforcement,” Kukhterin told the AP.

Some 6,000 people were detained over the past three days, according to the Interior Ministry. Earlier this week Belarus' Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe into mass rioting.

Belarusian state news agency Belta reported Wednesday that police detained “coordinators of mass riots” in the capital of Minsk. The detained men allegedly “managed hundreds” of protesters and were accused of paying them to participate in the unrest, Belta said.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, has derided the political opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters and vowed to continue taking a tough position on protests.

“The core of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and (those who are) currently unemployed,” Belta quoted Lukashenko as saying at a government meeting Wednesday.

Tsikhanouskaya, 37, a former English teacher who entered the race after her husband’s jailing in Belarus, left the country for Lithuania on Tuesday in an abrupt about-face, hours after publicly disputing the vote results and submitting a formal request for a recount. Her campaign said she made the move under duress.

Her departure from Minsk didn't discourage the protesters from taking to the streets again. Several told the AP that the rallies will continue.

The actions by police this week has drawn harsh criticism from the European Union and the United States.

“We watched an election that we were very concerned about,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday during a visit to the Czech Republic. “It wasn’t held in a way that was free and fair.”

Pompeo urged Belarusian authorities to protect non-violent protesters.

The developments in Belarus will be on the agenda of an urgent meeting of European Union foreign ministers on Friday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted.

The meeting was called a day after Borrell said that the 27-nation bloc would review its relations with Belarus and whether to take “measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results.”

In 2016, the European Union lifted most of the sanctions it slapped on Belarus in 2004 after Lukashenko, once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator in the West,” freed political prisoners and allowed protests.

This year the economic damage caused by the coronavirus and the president's swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as “psychosis,” has fueled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks and prompting the Belarusian leader to unleash a renewed crackdown on dissent.

Tsikhanouskaya, who lacks any prior political experience, entered the race after her husband’s arrest. She managed to unite fractured opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies — the largest opposition demonstrations in Belarus since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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