The main opposition leader in Belarus has fled to Lithuania ‘for the sake of her children’ amid deadly clashes after losing a disputed election to Alexander Lukashenko.
Protesters fought police with stones and fireworks and were hit with rubber bullets and tear gas on the streets of Minsk as they accused strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko of stealing 80 per cent of the election vote to win a sixth term in power.
Lukashenko’s 37-year-old challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya also claimed victory in the poll and there were concerns for her safety after she failed to make contact with her campaign team last night.
However, the foreign minister of Lithuania said this morning that Tikhanovskaya had crossed the border into the neighbouring ex-Soviet republic of Lithuania.
In a video posted to Youtube before she left, Tikhanobskaya said: ‘I thought that this campaign had really steeled me and given me so much strength that I could cope with anything.
‘But I guess I’m still the same weak woman that I was.’
‘I took a very difficult decision, I took it completely independently,’ she says.
‘My friends, relatives, campaign, Sergey [husband] could not influence it in any way and I know that many will understand me, many will condemn me, many will hate me.
‘But I wouldn’t wish this choice on anyone. So please look after yourselves, not one life is worth what is happening now. Children are the most important things in our lives.’
In chaotic scenes last night, police used tear gas and stun grenades to quell the protests which erupted on the streets of the capital.
‘Too many people are against Lukashenko,’ Pavel, a 34-year-old protester, said. ‘Our goal is to depose Lukashenko. He is not worthy of being president.’
Economic damage caused by coronavirus – which Lukashenko swaggeringly dismissed as ‘psychosis’ – has caused widespread anger in the country.
At one flashpoint in Minsk, protesters used sacks, buckets and metal barriers to build their own makeshift barricades.
A man died when an explosive device went off in his hand Monday night, police said, confirming the first casualty of the post-election protests.
‘One of the protesters tried to throw an unidentified explosive device at members of law enforcement. It exploded in his hand,’ the interior ministry said.
A police spokeswoman could not immediately say how many people had been injured in Monday’s clashes.
Tikhanovskaya had said earlier she would not take part in the demonstrations to avoid ‘provocations.’
‘The authorities should think about how to peacefully hand over power to us,’ she told reporters.
Tikhanovskaya decided to run for president after the authorities jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, and barred him from contesting.
Her campaign galvanised the opposition, presenting the most serious challenge to ‘Europe’s last dictator’ Lukashenko, 65, who has ruled Belarus since 1994.
Tikhanouskaya’s campaign rallies drew some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius was among those to voice fears for Tikhanovskaya’s welfare after failing to make contact with her on Monday night.
However, early this morning he announced that Tikhanovskaya was safe and had crossed the border into Lithuania, which has a history of granting refuge to opposition figures from Belarus and Russia.
Concern had grown after Tikhanovskaya went quiet following a three-hour meeting at the Central Election Commission headquarters on Monday.
Tikhanovskaya lodged an official complaint after official results claimed Lukashenko had won more than 80 per cent of the vote, with Tikhanovskaya on 10 per cent.
The White House said on Monday it was ‘deeply concerned’ about ‘intimidation of opposition candidates and the detention of peaceful protesters’ in Belarus.
European governments also questioned the results, with Germany voicing ‘strong doubts’ about the conduct of the vote and France urging restraint.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenko, a longtime ally, as did Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Lukashenko was defiant, vowing he would not allow Belarus to be ‘torn apart.’
‘We recorded calls from abroad. There were calls from Poland, Britain and the Czech Republic, they were directing our – forgive me – sheep,’ Lukashenko said.
Police said they detained some 3,000 people, around 1,000 of them in Minsk, after a first night of clashes on Sunday.
Young protesters were seen covered in blood, lying immobile on the ground or being dragged away by police.
The interior ministry said dozens were injured in the capital, accusing some protesters of sparking confrontations.
The Belarusian Investigative Committee said it had opened 21 criminal probes into ‘mass unrest’ and using violence against police and detained more than 80 people.
‘I am ashamed of what interior ministry forces did, I served in these forces,’ Sergei, a 45-year-old sheet metal worker, said.