Thousands of people are on the streets of the Belarusian capital, protesting against a vote that extended the 26-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader.
In several areas of Minsk, hundreds of women formed long “lines of solidarity”, carrying flowers and portraits of loved ones detained during protests.
The human chains grew quickly and by early afternoon filled the main central squares and avenues. Motorists blared horns in support.
Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds have been injured in a police clampdown on demonstrators protesting against the official results of Sunday’s ballot that gave President Alexander Lukashenko 80% of the vote and his top opposition challenger only 10%.
Police have broken up the protests with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets and severely beating many.
“Belarusians have seen the villainous face of this government,” said Valentina Chailytko, 49, whose husband and son were detained during protests on Sunday.
“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.”
Ms Chailytko said she has been unable to find any information about their whereabouts.
One protester died on Monday in Minsk and scores were injured.
Authorities confirmed a detainee also died in the south-eastern city Gomel but the circumstances of his death were not immediately clear.
The crackdown on protesters drew criticism in the West.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-nation bloc will review its relations with Belarus and consider “measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results”.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the election was not “free and fair” and urged the government to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters.
Mr Lukashenko 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,” Mr Lukashenko said at a meeting with security officials on Wednesday.
Some 6,000 people have been detained this week, according to the Interior Ministry.
The Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe into mass rioting – a charge that carries lengthy prison terms.
This year, the economic damage caused by coronavirus and the president’s response to the pandemic, which he dismissed as “psychosis”, has fuelled broad anger, helping swell opposition ranks and prompting the Belarusian leader to unleash a renewed crackdown.
Protesters on Thursday said they were undeterred by the crackdown.
“We’re not afraid, there’s no fear,” Alla Pronich, 38, told the Associated Press.
“To audacious rigging (of the election), to violence, to flash-bang grenades the authorities use, we respond with solidarity and a peaceful protest.
“It is all we have.”