By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) - Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Friday told people to stay at home to avoid becoming "cannon fodder" for what he said were foreign-backed revolutionaries after huge crowds took to the streets for a sixth consecutive day to demand he step down.
Lukashenko, whose claimed landslide re-election victory last Sunday has been branded a fraud by protesters, has failed to quell days of street demonstrations against him despite security forces tough response against demonstrators.
Opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who earlier this week fled to neighbouring Lithuania under severe pressure, called on Friday for more protests and an election recount.
That heaped more pressure on the authoritarian leader as he faces the biggest challenge in his 26 years in power.
He showed no signs of backing down.
"Don’t throw yourselves onto the streets. You must understand that you are being used, and our children are being used, like cannon fodder," Lukashenko said in televised remarks.
"Today people have come from Poland, the Netherlands, Ukraine and from Russia. Aggression against our country has already begun," he said, suggesting anti-Kremlin activists were trying to whip up trouble.
He had earlier joked that he was alive and had not fled abroad.
In a video posted on social media on Friday, Tsikhanouskaya asked her supporters to demand an official investigation into allegations that Lukashenko had rigged the presidential election.
"Belarusians will never again want to live with the old authorities," she said. "Let's defend our choice. Don't stay on the sidelines. Our voices need to be heard."
At least two protesters were killed and thousands detained in this week's crackdown. The European Union on Friday took its first step towards imposing new sanctions on Belarus, with a diplomatic source saying member states had agreed to task its foreign policy unit with preparing a list of individuals to be blacklisted.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets for a sixth consecutive day on Friday demanding that Lukashenko step down. Protesters were joined by workers at some of the state-owned industrial plants that are the centrepiece of his Soviet-style economic model.
As the crowd converged on the parliament building on Independence Square in Minsk, at least two helmeted security officers lowered their riot shields, prompting women to run forward to hug them and offer flowers.
In a carnival atmosphere, marchers held up balloons, flags and placards saying "we will not forget, we will not forgive". Horns from passing cars blared in solidarity.
In a rare climbdown, the government had earlier apologised for the use of force as it freed more than 2,000 protesters from detention.
Several bore heavy bruises and complained of beatings, cramped conditions and starvation rations inside the cells. The government denied abusing detainees.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for sanctions on those "who violated democratic values or abused human rights in Belarus".
Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told his Swiss counterpart in a call that Minsk was ready for "constructive and objective dialogue with foreign partners" about issues related to the election, the state news agency BelTA reported.
Russia, which has nudged Lukashenko into accepting closer political and economic ties, has expressed concern over what it depicted as attempts by external forces to destabilise Belarus.
Russia's General Prosecutor's Office said on Friday Belarus had returned a group of 32 Russian nationals after detaining them and accusing them of being mercenaries out to destabilise Belarus.
Lukashenko, a 65-year-old who once ran a Soviet collective farm, has faced increasing anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic as well as a sluggish economy and civil rights.
The official election result handed him a landslide victory with 80% of the vote, compared to around 10% for Tsikhanouskaya. Washington said the vote "was not free and fair".
Thousands of workers protested on Friday at the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ), which makes trucks and buses, chanting "Shame on you!" and "Go!", echoing the unrest seen at several major factories this week.
Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to take her husband's place in the election campaign after he was jailed. She has now led some of the biggest protests against Lukashenko since he came to power with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Shortly after the election, she fled to Lithuania, saying it was for the sake of her children. On Friday, she called for the international community to facilitate talks with the authorities and said she wanted to set up a council to enable a transfer of power, a proposal that was swiftly endorsed by the president of Lithuania.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky and Vasily Fedosenko in Minsk; Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, Andrew Osborn, Alexander Marrow and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Writing by Matthias Williams/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Frances Kerry)