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Aug. 11, 2020, 5:48 p.m. EDT

Protests continue in Belarus as opposition candidate flees country

Regime holds Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband in jail

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By Associated Press

Associated Press
Police beat demonstrators with truncheons Monday during a mass protest following presidential election in Minsk, Belarus.

MINSK, Belarus — The top opposition candidate in Belarus’ presidential election left for Lithuania Tuesday but anti-government demonstrators still turned out for a third straight night to protest the vote results, despite a massive police crackdown that prompted a warning of possible European Union sanctions.

Looking haggard and distressed, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 37, a former English teacher who entered the race after her husband’s jailing in Belarus, apologized to her backers in a video statement and said it was her own choice to leave the country.

“It was a very hard decision to make,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “I know that many of you will understand me, many others will condemn me and some will even hate me. But God forbid you ever face the choice that I faced.”

In another video statement released later Tuesday, she urged her supporters to respect the law and to avoid clashes with police.

The statements marked an abrupt about-face for Tsikhanouskaya hours after she dismissed the official results of Sunday’s election that showed President Alexander Lukashenko winning a sixth term with a landslide 80% of the vote, and her getting just 10%.

Her campaign aides said she made the unexpected moves under duress. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, an opposition blogger who had hoped to run for president, has been jailed since his arrest in May.

“It’s very difficult to resist pressure when your family and all your inner circle have been taken hostages,” Maria Kolesnikova, a top associate of Tsikhanovskaya’s, said.

The former candidate’s campaign put out a statement urging authorities to engage in a dialogue with protesters on a “peaceful transition of power.”

The authoritarian Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994, has derided the opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters and vowed to continue taking a tough position on protests despite Western rebukes over the election.

Thousands of opposition supporters protesting the election results encountered aggressive police tactics in the capital of Minsk and several other Belarusian cities.

On Monday, a protester died amid clashes in Minsk and scores were injured as police used tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to disperse them. The Interior Ministry said the victim intended to throw an explosive device, but it blew up in his hand and killed him.

Belarus’ health officials said over 200 people have been hospitalized with injuries following the protests, and some underwent surgery.

Heavy police cordons blocking Minsk’s central squares and avenues didn’t discourage the demonstrators who again took to the streets chanting “Shame!” and “Long live Belarus!”

Police moved quickly Tuesday to separate and disperse scattered groups of protesters in the capital, but new pockets of resistance kept mushrooming across downtown Minsk.

Officers detained dozens, including some of those who brought flowers to the place where the protester died the previous night, and used stun grenades and rubber bullets to break up the crowds. Clashes between police and the protesters continued well into Tuesday night.

Motorists were blaring horns in a sign of support, and some used their cars to block police vehicles’ passage. The Interior Ministry warned that such vehicles will be impounded and their owners could face criminal charges.

The ministry said Tuesday more than 2,000 people were detained across the country for taking part in unsanctioned protests on Monday evening and overnight. It added that 21 police officers were injured in clashes with protesters, and five of them were hospitalized.

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