MINSK -- Throngs of women peacefully protested in central Minsk late on September 1 after earlier in the day security forces detained dozens of university students rallying in response to a call from Belarus’s opposition for a nationwide strike to coincide with the first day of the school year.
Several hundred women gathered near Independence Avenue in the capital, some singing and dancing as police looked on without intervening.
Women have taken a leading role in more than three weeks of protests against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule, often forming lines to shield men from arrest.
Earlier in the day, columns of students carrying banned red-and-white flags representing the opposition gathered in front of universities and flocked into the center of Minsk.
"September 1 is a day of knowledge. Knowledge of the meaning of Belarusian solidarity. Join this one-day strike, support the workers and show the government who is the real source of power," opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s team said in a statement.
At least 55 people were detained as riot police dispersed protesters at several locations, according to the Vyasna human rights group. Video posted on social media showed police dressed in black charging into a line of students and forcefully dragging them away.
The Belarusian Journalists Association said eight journalists covering the protests were detained for attending unauthorized protests. Last week, authorities stripped at least 17 journalists of accreditation in a bid to control information about protests.
Lukashenka, who has kept a tight grip on Belarus for 26 years, was declared the winner in an August 9 presidential election, which was widely viewed as rigged.
Hundreds of thousands of citizens have since taken to the streets across the country to protest the results, calling on Lukashenka to step down, release all political prisoners, and hold free and fair elections.
Much of Europe, as well as the United States and other countries, have rejected the election results and criticized Lukashenka's crackdown on protesters and opposition members both before and after the vote.
In a statement on September 1, UN human rights experts said they had received reports of 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of people held in custody since the election.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians take to the streets to demand the resignation of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and call for new elections after official results from the August 9 presidential poll gave Lukashenka a landslide victory.
“Any violation of the non-derogable prohibition of torture and ill-treatment must be prosecuted and punished," they said.
The experts also said that most people reported missing have been accounted for, but the whereabouts and the health situation of at least six individuals are said to be unknown to their relatives.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on September 1 called on the UN Human Rights Council to immediately convene to discuss the situation in Belarus.
Separately, Lithuania along with Latvia and Estonia announced on August 31 that they had slapped travel sanctions on several top Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka.
The European Union has agreed to impose sanctions on up to 20 senior Belarusian officials suspected of involvement in election fraud and the brutal crackdown on protesters.
With the goodwill built up during a thaw in relations with the West quickly evaporating, Lukashenka, who has rejected the opposition’s demands, has turned an eye towards the Kremlin, a traditional ally despite recent strains sparked by Minsk's courting of others.
On September 1, Lukashenka said that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin will safeguard "our common homeland from Brest to Vladivostok" and that he was ready to reroute the country’s cargo from Baltic ports to Russian ports in response to the sanctions imposed by Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
"They say, it would be more expensive for Belarus," BelTa news agency quoted Lukashenka as saying.
"Of course, it would be a little bit disadvantageous for us. But we can agree with the Russians on tariffs," he said
Addressing students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on September 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Western countries of "delivering verdicts" on the crisis in Belarus, which he said is “unacceptable in the modern world."
Moscow has consistently accused the West of interfering in the internal affairs of Belarus.