Video report by ITV News Correspondent John Irvine
At least 2,000 people have been released in Belarus after protests swept across the country following accusations Sunday's presidential election was rigged.
Protests have been ongoing since Sunday's elections after officials reported that President Alexander Lukashenko won 80% of the vote to extend his 26-year authoritarian hold on power.
Western nations had threatened to impose sanctions on Belarus unless those detained were released, with demonstrations still ongoing on the streets as anger mounts over the police's brutal crackdown.
Many of those released showed bruises on their body and spoke of the beatings they endured whilst detained, as other hugged family and friends after they were released.
Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured since Sunday as police dispersed demonstrations using stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings. At least one person has died.
On Friday, thousands rallied against Mr Lukashenko and his main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled on Tuesday to neighbouring Lithuania, posted a video in which she disputed the results of the vote and demanded that the government start a dialogue with demonstrators.
Mr Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, has warned that strikes would deepened the damage on the country caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everyone is fighting for markets, and if we stop we will never be able to resume production,” he said. “You must explain it to the people.”
He did not directly address the election and the protests, but Natalya Kochanova, speaker of the upper house of parliament, said late on Thursday that more than 1,000 detainees had been released that day following Mr Lukashenko’s order to law enforcement agencies to look more closely into the detentions.
“We don’t need a war, we don’t need a fight,” she said in televised remarks.
Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna rights centre confirmed that about 1,000 people were released from jails in Minsk and Zhodino, adding: “The authorities are obviously trying to de-escalate the situation and ease the tensions, fearing that the furious industrial workers will take to the streets all across Belarus.
The Interior Ministry later said 2,000 detainees had been freed and more will follow.
After a violent crackdown, police stood back on Thursday as thousands of people formed “lines of solidarity” in Minsk and other cities.
Women, many of them dressed in white and carrying flowers and portraits of detained loved ones, spearheaded the human chains as motorists honked in support. Authorities again did not interfere with the demonstrations on Friday.
Dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms in bins.
The demonstrations have spread even though the protest lacks leaders. Ms Tsikhanouskaya urged her supporters to stop protests in an earlier video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials while she was still in Minsk.
The 37-year-old former teacher had joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May.
In her new video released on Friday, she again challenged the election results, saying that copies of protocols from precincts where the vote was counted fairly show her winning 60% to 70%.
She urged the government to end violence and engage in dialogue with protesters.
“The Belarusians will never want to live under the current government,” she said. “The authorities have turned peaceful demonstrations into a bloodbath.”