Belarusian opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya says a nationwide strike to ratchet up pressure on Alyaksandr Lukashenka to step down "has only just begun and will continue to strengthen," after thousands of workers, students, and pensioners took to the streets across Belarus.
"I am proud of every Belarusian who found strength and courage and went on strike today," Tsikhanouskaya said in an interview with RFE/RL in the evening of October 26, urging all her countrymen to join the protest.
"Join the nationwide strike! This is the only way we can finally overthrow this regime and all together, all Belarusians, build a new country, safe and free," she said via Zoom from neighboring Lithuania, where she has been living since shortly after Belarus’s August 9 presidential election amid threats to her and her family.
"The strike did not fail, no matter what the supporters of the regime -- whom there are fewer and fewer -- say about it," the opposition leader also said.
Instead of accepting the opposition’s call to leave by midnight on October 25, Lukashenka responded with another show of power, setting security forces upon the protesters on October 26.
More than 320 people were detained in Minsk, Hrodna, Brest, Mahilyou, Lida, and other Belarusian cities, according to the Vyasna human rights group, a day after riot police used stun grenades and rubber bullets against tens of thousands of protesters gathered across Belarus and detained hundreds.
Students in some universities on October 26 refused to attend lectures and marched in Minsk in protest, joining retirees in their regular Monday protest. Many shops and cafes were closed, with their owners and employees forming human chains in the capital.
Strikes also targeted large plants in Minsk and elsewhere, including national oil company Belarusneft, the world's largest producer of potash Belaruskali, and the MAZ truck-manufacturing plant.
According to Alyaksandr Yaroshuk, leader of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Unions, the authorities responded by detaining protesters in the streets and outside factories, and threatening workers with jail or being fired if they went on strike.
"We see with shock and dismay how this regime, which has unleashed weeks of unspeakable violence against protesters in streets and prisons, today sent masked riot police to beat and arrest striking workers at their workplaces,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International's acting director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
“A frank disregard is being shown for the most basic of human rights, and the right to strike is now one more that is being mercilessly crushed with police boots and batons," he added.
Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the winner of the country’s August 9 presidential election amid allegations of widespread vote-rigging.
The Belarusian opposition says the results of the August vote were fraudulent and that Tsikhanouskaya was the legitimate winner.
The United States, the European Union, Britain, and Canada have refused to recognize Lukashenka's victory and imposed travel bans and asset freezes against a string of Belarusian officials accused of election fraud and human rights abuses.
In calling for the strike from exile in Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya urged people to think about the future of their children and to fight for a life in freedom.
"The regime once again showed Belarusians that force is the only thing it is capable of," she wrote in a statement.
Tsikhanouskaya has urged Belarusians to block roads, shut down workplaces, stop using government shops and services, and withdraw all money from their bank accounts.
She said on October 25 that she supported each Belarusian who went to the streets to protest peacefully and each government official, law enforcement official, and security worker who expressed solidarity with the people.
“Together we are stronger than any regime & we will return the law to Belarus,” she said on Twitter.
Lukashenka has scoffed at the calls, asking, "Who will feed the kids?" if workers at state-owned enterprises go on strike.
More than 100,000 protesters turned out in Minsk for the 11th Sunday on Octobrer 25 in a row despite a warning by authorities against attending demonstrations for which no permit had been issued.
The government responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets.
Protesters scattered as loud bangs and flashes lit up the city's streets after nightfall, videos showed. At least one person was wounded as the result of the use of stun grenades.
Rubber bullets were also used to disperse the column, and one person was wounded in the stomach.
The Interior Ministry said on October 26 that, in all, more than 500 protesters were detained in the demonstrations across the country a day earlier, including 160 people in Minsk. Some 350 individuals will face administrative charges, the ministry said.
Police authorities confirmed that riot control weapons had been used and detentions had taken place.
Ahead of the protests, mobile Internet was reportedly disrupted and 12 subway stations were closed in the capital due to "security reasons" until early afternoon, when all of them reopened.
Such measures had been reported during past protests in what appeared to be an attempt to disrupt the free flow of information.
In addition to Lukashenka’s resignation, the opposition movement is calling for an end to police violence, the release of all political prisoners, and a new election.
A UN human rights investigator said last month that thousands of people had been "savagely beaten" and there were more than 500 reports of torture, which the authorities deny.