Opposition supporters have taken to the streets since Sunday, accusing the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko of election fraud after Minsk officials announced he had been reelected with 80 percent of the vote. Belarusian police responded with sweeping arrests, marred by scenes of apparent brutality.
“I offer apologies for the injuries of random people who got caught up in the dispersal,” Interior Minister Yuri Karayev said in a televised interview on Thursday. He noted that rioters have attacked law enforcement 11 times over the past three days.
Karayev noted that Belarus has always been the envy of neighboring countries for its peace and security, urging the demonstrators not to throw that away.
“Thank God, this has not turned into a revolution yet,” he said.
The interior minister also said he would prioritize the release of journalists that have been jailed in the roundups of demonstrators.
“The press is sacred, and should not be touched,” he added. However, he urged reporters not to put themselves between the police and the rioters.
Natalya Kochanova, speaker of the upper house of the parliament, took a similar conciliatory tone. Noting that more than a thousand of those arrested have been released already, Kochanova called on the people to “stop the self-destruction.”
“We don't need a fight, we don't need a war. Minsk has always been peaceful and calm,” she told reporters.
At least two protesters have died and more than 6,000 people have been arrested in the four days of the unrest. Videos shared online suggest that efforts to disperse the demonstrations have involved SWAT units being set loose on protesters as well as liberal use of rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and tear gas.
Clips of riot police beating or arresting people walking their dogs or alleged innocent bystanders have gone viral. In at least one instance, the police aimed their weapons at residential buildings in Minsk while attempting to arrest demonstrators who sought refuge there.
Lukashenko has accused foreign governments – specifically Poland, Czechia and the UK – of fomenting a “color revolution” in Belarus, which Prague and Warsaw have denied.
Some opposition activists have demanded regime change and appealed to the West for support, while opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania after reports she was targeted by an assassination plot.