Riot troops used truncheons and a water cannon and detained dozens of protesters as clashes escalated in Minsk and other cities following Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's surprise swearing-in for a sixth term despite weeks of unprecedented public calls for his exit.
Lukashenka's secretive inauguration earlier on September 23 immediately met with criticism from members of the opposition, who refused to accept the results of an August 9 vote following jailings and other intimidation tactics to mute dissent and limit would-be challengers in the former Soviet state of more than 9 million.
As scenes of the latest crackdown on Belarusian demonstrators emerged, the United States added its name to growing list of Western countries that responded to the swearing-in by saying they won't recognize Lukashenka's presidency.
"The elections August 9 were neither free nor fair. The announced results were fraudulent and did not convey legitimacy," a State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL. "The United States cannot consider Alyaksandr Lukashenka the legitimately elected leader of Belarus."
The State Department called for a "national dialogue" culminating in "a free and fair election under independent observation."
The spokesperson added, "Release of those unjustly detained and an end of repression against peacefully protesting citizens is a first step toward genuine national dialogue."
Following the inauguration ceremony, spontaneous demonstrations broke out in Minsk, the heart of more than six weeks of nationwide opposition to a vote that Lukashenka claims to have won with more than 80 percent support.
By late afternoon, thousands had gathered near the Stela Minsk Hero City World War II memorial in downtown Minsk before Interior Ministry troops moved in.
The black-and-green-clad riot troops descended on the crowd, followed by a truck with a water cannon, sending many Belarusians fleeing into nearby grassy areas and shops.
After nightfall, groups of protesters and anti-Lukashenka drivers blocked some streets in the capital.
The Vyasna rights group issued a list of more than 140 people it said had been detained in Minsk, the southwestern city of Brest, and other places.
The official news agency BelTA reported "several hundred" senior officials had been invited to the inauguration ceremony, though it did not say who or how many actually attended.
BelTA said Lukashenka put his right hand on the constitution and took the oath office, before signing it. The chairman of the Central Election Commission then presented him with the certificate of the president of the Republic of Belarus, it added.
"Our statehood had to face an unprecedented challenge based on well-developed technologies that are aimed at destroying independent states," Lukashenka said during his inauguration speech, alluding to his previous claims that Western states were fomenting a pro-democracy revolution against him.
"However, we turned out to be one of those few countries where a color revolution failed, or perhaps, we were the only such country. It was a choice made by the Belarusian people who don't want to lose their country."
The strength of the Belarusian government, Lukashenka added, "lies in the fact that even in the most difficult times we have not abandoned our policy of a socially oriented state."
The inauguration drew harsh criticism from supporters of the opposition, who have called on the 66-year-old authoritarian leader to step down and hold free and fair elections, claiming the vote was rigged in his favor.
After the swearing-in ceremony, the opposition, led by his exiled main challenger, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said it would never accept Lukashenka's "falsified" victory and called for an immediate campaign of civil disobedience and open-ended protests.
"This so-called inauguration is certainly a farce. In fact, today Lukashenka just retired," Tsikhanouskaya wrote on her Telegram channel. "This means that his orders for security agencies are not legitimate anymore and must not be fulfilled.
Tsikhanouskaya, who officially finished second to Lukashenka but claims to have won, added that "I, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, am the only leader recognized by the Belarusian people."
Earlier, while addressing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vilnius, Tsikhanouskaya called Lukashenka's inauguration "an attempt to seize power."
In a statement, her team said: "Anyone can be president.... Take the constitution, put your hand on it, say a couple of times 'I swear,' sign a paper saying 'I am president,' and put it in your pocket."
Paval Latushka -- who served as Belarusian ambassador to Poland, France, UNESCO, and Spain between 2002-19 and was part of the opposition's Coordination Council set up to pave a transition to a new president -- wrote on his Telegram channel that the country was "witnessing an unprecedented situation."
"The outgoing president, who claims to have won more than 80 percent of the vote in the election, has carried out a special operation to be sworn in," Latushka wrote. "Under the protection of riot police, in an atmosphere of secrecy, in a narrow circle of officials who were hastily brought in. Where are the jubilant citizens? Where is the diplomatic corps?"
"To be honest," Latushka added, "it looks more like a thieves' meeting for the coronation of another thief-in-law."
Lukashenka faces the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule amid the unprecedented nationwide protests and has answered peaceful protests and demands for him to leave office with violent arrests and the alleged torture of detainees.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Ales Byalyatski, the head of Vyasna, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the secret inauguration was a sign of Lukashenka's "weakness."
"People don't perceive this as a real inauguration. But he probably couldn't have done it any other way," Byalyatski said. "If the inauguration had been announced in advance, 200,000 demonstrators would have been standing under his palace."
He added that most Belarusians consider Lukashenka "to be a man who stole power" and that "such an inauguration will provoke even greater mass protests against such actions."
Images posted on social media showed people holding placards reading "the king is naked" and "victory belongs to the people," and holding up the banned red-and-white flags and banners associated with the opposition movement. Protesters were reportedly blocking some streets in the city center.
Lukashenka said in his inauguration speech that "we will deal with our issues on our own, without any external participation, will come to an agreement, will ensure the cooperation of all social classes while observing the law and mutual respect."
On September 23, before the U.S. announcement, a growing list of European countries said they would not recognize Lukashenka's presidency.
Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Estonia all said they did not consider Lukashenka the legitimate president of Belarus.
"The minimum requirements for democratic elections were by no means met. They were neither fair nor free," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said after Lukashenka was sworn in. "Even after today's ceremony, Mr. Lukashenka cannot evoke the democratic legitimacy that would have been the condition for him to be recognized as a legitimate president."
The Polish Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said in a statement that "a president elected in an undemocratic election cannot be considered to be legally exercising power, whether the oath was secret or official."
Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said Lukashenka "has no legitimacy to lead his country."
Former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, a frequent critic of Lukashenka, responded to Lukashenka's swearing-in ceremony by tweeting that "inaugurating oneself as president is 'literally' autocracy."
The United States, the European Union, and other Western allies have also denounced the violence used against demonstrators.
Following Lukashenka's ceremony, the Belarusian military pledged allegiance to the long-serving authoritarian president and willingness to "defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Motherland," according to the state agency BelTA.
In Moscow, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on Lukashenka's inauguration, saying that "if they made such a decision, it means they considered it to be reasonable."
Russia has given lukewarm support to Lukashenka amid the protests, offering military support if necessary and providing Belarus with a $1.5 billion loan after the embattled Belarusian leader flew to Sochi to meet with President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
Peskov added that Putin had no plans to visit Belarus following Lukashenka's inauguration.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on September 23 became the first leader from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States to congratulate Lukashenka on taking office for the sixth time.