Belarusian authorities have released about 1,000 people detained amid demonstrations contesting the results of the presidential election, in an attempt to assuage public anger against a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.
Around midnight, scores of detainees were seen walking out of one of Minsk's jails. In the early morning, volunteers also saw at least 119 detainees being released in the city of Zhodino just northeast of the Belarusian capital. Ambulances arrived to carry those who apparently were unable to walk on their own.
Many of those who were released talked about brutal beatings and other abuse at the hands of police, and some showed bruises. Some wept as they embraced their relatives.
The releases came hours after Belarus' top law enforcement official apologised on state television for the indiscriminate use of force by police. "I take responsibility for what they say was violence against those people, who happened to be nearby and failed to back off quickly enough," Interior Minister Yuri Karayev said late on Thursday.
The move comes on the day that European Union foreign ministers are due to meet to discuss possible sanctions against Belarus.
Ahead of the meeting, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged them to back sanctions against those who "violated democratic values... and abused human rights" in Belarus.
"I am confident today's EU Foreign Ministers' discussion will demonstrate our strong support for the rights of the people in Belarus to fundamental freedoms & democracy," she tweeted.
Mr Lukashenko's main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been given refuge in neighboring Lithuania, posted a video statement contesting the results of the vote and demanding that the government start a dialogue with protesters.
In five days of massive protests, crowds of demonstrators swarmed the streets to contest the vote results and demand an end to the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured.
The official results said Mr Lukashenko won 80 per cent of the vote and Mrs Tsikhanouskaya only 10 per cent. Police have broken up protests with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings.
On Thursday, thousands of workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce the police crackdown and push for a recount of Sunday's vote.
Hundreds of women formed long "lines of solidarity" in several areas of the capital, Minsk. Many were dressed in white and carried flowers and portraits of detained loved ones.
The human chains grew throughout the day, filling Minsk's main central squares and avenues and spreading to numerous other cities as motorists honked in support.
Amid growing public dismay, dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms and insignia in the trash. Several popular anchors at Belarus' state TV stations have quit.
The demonstrations have spread even though the protest lacks leaders. Mrs Tsikhanouskaya abruptly left for Lithuania on Tuesday, calling on her supporters to stop protests in a video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials before her departure. The 37-year-old former teacher had joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May.
In a new video statement released on Friday, Mrs Tsikhanouskaya again challenged Mr Lukashenko's victory, saying that copies of protocols from precincts where the vote was counted fairly show her winning 60-70 per cent of the vote. 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 blood bath."
The massive protests against election results and police brutality have been an unprecedented challenge to Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and earned the nickname of "Europe's last dictator" for his relentless crackdown on dissent. The scope and ferocity of the police clampdown were remarkable even for Mr Lukashenko's iron-fisted rule, triggering widespread anger.
After dismissing protesters as mostly ex-convicts and unemployed, the authoritarian leader kept silent Thursday as the rallies spread quickly and workers at major industrial plants joined them. Some reports said he was preparing an address to the nation.
Clearly worried about the possibility of major strikes, Mr Lukashenko warned that they would deepen the damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic and could lead to Belarus losing its niche in global markets amid intense competition.
"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 didn't directly address the election and the subsequent protests, but the Belarusian upper house speaker Natalya Kochanova said late on Thursday that more than 1,000 detainees had been released earlier in the 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," Ms Kochanova said in televised remarks.
Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna rights center confirmed that about 1,000 people have been released from jails in Minsk and Zhodino,
"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," Mr Stefanovich said.
A protester died Monday in Minsk when, according to the Interior Ministry, an explosive device he tried to throw at police blew up in his hand. Media reports challenged the ministry's claim, alleging that he was killed by police. The place where he died quickly turned into a pilgrimage site, with hundreds of people, including European ambassadors, laying flowers there.
The authorities said that a detainee died in the southeastern city of Gomel, but the circumstances of his death weren't immediately clear.
The brutal suppression of protests drew harsh criticism in the West.
European Union foreign ministers are set to meet Friday to discuss a response, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the 27-nation bloc would "increase the pressure" on Belarus.
In an attempt to ease Western criticism, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in a phone call with his Swiss counterpart that the country is ready for a "constructive and objective dialogue" with foreign partners on all issues related to the election and subsequent events.