Lukashenko Challenger Leaves Belarus As EU Threatens Sanctions

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The main challenger to Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko in disputed presidential polls said she had left the country on Tuesday to protect her children as the European Union threatened to reimpose tough sanctions over vote rigging and a violent crackdown on demonstrators.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who won mass support in her bid against the authoritarian leader, was now "safe" in Lithuania, its Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP.

The EU condemned the polls that handed Lukashenko 80 percent of the vote as "neither free nor fair" and warned it could punish those responsible for "violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results."

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother, came second with 10 percent according to the official count but has claimed victory in the polls.

Her supporters stood in long lines to vote after thousands attended packed rallies across the country calling for an end to Lukashenko's 26-year rule.

IMAGESThousand of protesters take to the streets of the Belarus capital Minsk for a second night of post-election rallies, where police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to quash protests against a disputed weekend presidential election which handed a six IMAGESThousand of protesters take to the streets of the Belarus capital Minsk for a second night of post-election rallies, where police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to quash protests against a disputed weekend presidential election which handed a sixth term to strongman Alexander Lukashenko.  AFPTV / Alexander GREBENKIN

On Tuesday they held protests against Lukashenko for a third night running. Riot police deployed stun grenades and rubber bullets in a Minsk suburb and attacked journalists.

The latest protests came after a distressed-looking Tikhanovskaya said in a video statement that she had "made a very difficult decision" to leave the country.

"Children are the most important thing we have in life," said the 37-year-old, whose five-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son had earlier been taken out of the country for their safety.

A police spokeswoman could not immediately say how many people had been injured in Monday's clashes A police spokeswoman could not immediately say how many people had been injured in Monday's clashes  AFP / Sergei GAPON

Tikhanovskaya decided to run for president after the authorities jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, and barred him from contesting the election. He remains in prison in Belarus.

"I know that many will understand me, many will judge me, and many will begin to hate me," Tikhanovskaya said. "But God forbid anyone face the choice I had."

Belarusian state media released a second video where Tikhanovskaya urged supporters not to protest, which her allies said was apparently recorded under duress.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run for president after the authorities jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, and barred him from running Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run for president after the authorities jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, and barred him from running  AFP / Sergei GAPON

Tikhanovskaya's campaign partner, Maria Kolesnikova, who is still in Belarus, urged the authorities "to stop the violence and listen to the will of the people."

In Minsk, peaceful demonstrators waved flags and wore white ribbons on their wrists to show support for Tikhanovskaya as riot police wielding shields and batons patrolled the streets and detained passers-by.

Thousands took to the streets of the capital Minsk Monday night, saying long-ruling strongman Alexander  Lukashenko had stolen the election Thousands took to the streets of the capital Minsk Monday night, saying long-ruling strongman Alexander Lukashenko had stolen the election  AFP / Sergei GAPON

In the city's western Kamennaya Gorka district, police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets and detained dozens after protesters built a barricade and blocked traffic.

AFP journalists also saw riot police target press photographers, pulling out memory cards from their cameras and breaking lenses.

Broadband and mobile internet were cut off Tuesday evening, a reporter in Minsk said, while residents have had difficulties connecting to opposition-linked websites and social media since Sunday.

Lukashenko's opponents have been calling for running protests against his regime and there were calls for a nationwide strike Lukashenko's opponents have been calling for running protests against his regime and there were calls for a nationwide strike  AFP / Sergei GAPON

The interior ministry said it detained more than 5,000 people on Sunday and Monday. An AFP journalist found casings and pins from stun grenades, rubber bullets and both live and blank rounds after protests in central Minsk.

Dozens of people were injured in the violence and the first fatality was confirmed on Monday when police said a man died after an explosive device went off in his hand.

On Tuesday, people laid flowers and white ribbons and lit candles at the spot where he died.

The health ministry said more than 200 protesters were in hospital with wounds, including chest and head injuries.

Protesters said Tikhanovskaya's departure would not stop their movement.

"Our goal is to overthrow the Lukashenko regime," Yakov, a 51-year-old engineer, told AFP in Minsk.

"That Tikhanovskaya has left for Lithuania is even better, she is safe there."

Tikhanovskaya's campaign galvanised the opposition, presenting the strongest challenge yet to former collective farm director Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, brooking no dissent and earning the nickname of "Europe's last dictator".

Western countries have condemned the mass detentions and violations of democratic rights and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the EU could "very quickly" reimpose harsh sanctions on Lukashenko.

The White House said it was "deeply concerned" by the violence.

Poland offered to act as a mediator between Lukashenko and the opposition and called for an emergency EU summit.

The Belarusian foreign ministry on Tuesday said it had "irrefutable" evidence of "interference from abroad."

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