MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Thousands of demonstrators in Belarus rallied Saturday at the spot where a protester died in clashes with police, calling for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to resign after 26 years in power. Some stripped off their shirts to display deep bruises they said came from being beaten by police.
It was the seventh consecutive day of large protests against the results of the Aug. 9 presidential election in which election officials say Lukashenko won a sixth term in office. Opposition supporters believe the figures have been manipulated.
Despite harsh police crackdowns against the protesters, including the detention of some 7,000 people, the demonstrations have swelled into the largest and most sustained anti-government movement since Lukashenko took power in 1994.
The 65-year-old Lukashenko, for his part, on Saturday rejected suggestions that foreign mediators become involved in trying to resolve the country’s political crisis.
He discussed the situation in a call Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first publicly known direct contact between the two leaders since the election. A Kremlin statement said Putin and Lukashenko both expressed hope for a quick resolution to the tensions.
“It is important that these problems are not used by destructive forces aimed at causing injury to the cooperation of the two countries in the framework of the union state,” the Kremlin said.
Russia and Belarus reached an agreement in 1997 about closer ties between the neighboring ex-Soviet countries in a union that stopped short of a full merger, although that has collided with recent disputes between the countries and Lukashenko’s suspicions that Putin’s government wants to absorb Belarus.
Later, in a meeting with Defense Ministry officials, Lukashenko declared “Listen — we have a normal country, founded on a constitution. We don’t need any foreign government, any sort of mediators.” He appeared to be referring to an offer from the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to become involved.
Lukashenko’s main election opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania the day after the election, knowing that several previous presidential challengers have been jailed for years on charges that supporters say were trumped up.
A funeral was held Saturday for Alexander Taraikovsky, a 34-year-old protester who died Monday in the capital of Minsk under disputed circumstances. Belarusian police said he died when an explosive device he intended to throw at police blew up in his hand.
But his partner, Elena German, told The Associated Press that when she saw his body in a morgue on Friday, his hands showed no damage and he had a perforation in his chest that she believes is a bullet wound.
About 5,000 demonstrators gathered Saturday in the area where Taraikovsky died. They laid a mass of flowers in tribute, piling into a mound about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall, as passing cars blared their horns.
“It’s awful to live in a country where you can be killed at a peaceful protest. I will leave, if power isn’t changed,” said 30-year-old demonstrator Artem Kushner.
Protests about political situation in Belarus were also held in the Czech Republic and in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow.
The brutal suppression of protests in Belarus has drawn harsh criticism in the West. European Union foreign ministers said Friday that they rejected the election results in Belarus and began drawing up a list of officials in Belarus who could face sanctions over their role in the crackdown.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday that he was glad to see that some protesters in Belarus had been freed but that it was not enough. He also said the presidential election in Belarus fell short of democratic standards.
“We’ve said the elections themselves (in Belarus) weren’t free. I’ve spent the last days consulting with our European partners,” he said Saturday at a news conference in Warsaw with his Polish counterpart.
“Our common objective is to support the Belarusian people. These people are demanding the same things that every human being wants,” Pompeo said. “We urged the leadership to broaden the circle to engage with civil society.”
Jim Heintz in Moscow and Matthew Lee in Warsaw contributed contributed to this story.