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Opposition candidate leaves Belarus, urges end to protests

By YURAS KARMANAU
Associated Press
MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The top opposition candidate in Belarus’ presidential vote, who initially refused to concede her defeat amid a massive police crackdown on protesters, said Tuesday she has left for Lithuania and called on her supporters to end demonstrations.
Looking haggard and distressed, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher and political novice, apologized to her supporters in a video statement and said it was her own choice to leave the country.
“It was a very hard decision to make,” she 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 on Tuesday, she urged her supporters to respect the law and avoid clashes with police.
Her campaign aides said she made the unexpected move under duress. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband has been at a Belarusian jail since his arrest in May.
“It’s very difficult to resist pressure when your family and all your inner circle have been taken hostages,” said Maria Kolesnikova, a top figure in Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign.
Tsikhanouskaya previously dismissed the official results of Sunday’s election showing authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko winning a sixth term by a landslide. Thousands of opposition supporters who also protested the results met with a tough police crackdown in Minsk and several other Belarusian cities for two straight nights.
On Monday, a protester died amid the clashes in Minsk and scores were injured as police used tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators. The Interior Ministry said the victim intended to throw an explosive device, but it blew up in his hand and killed him.
The ministry said Tuesday that 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.
The previous day, the Interior Ministry reported more than 3,000 detentions and said that 89 people were injured, including 39 law enforcement officers.
Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher without any prior political experience, entered the race after her husband, an opposition blogger who had hoped to run for president, was arrested in May. She has managed to unite fractured opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies — the largest opposition demonstrations in Belarus since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the video statement posted on her Facebook, Tsikhanouskaya thanked her supporters for backing her candidacy, but added that “the people of Belarus have made their choice.”
“Belarusians, I’m urging you to show common sense and respect for the law,” she said, reading a text without raising her eyes from the paper. “I don’t want blood and violence. I’m asking you not to confront the police and not take to squares to put your lives in danger. Take care of yourselves and your relatives.”
Hours before that, Tsikhanouskaya disputed the vote results and submitted a formal request for a recount to the Central Election Commission. She stayed in the commission headquarters for hours and faced senior law enforcement officers, according to her campaign aides.
One aide, Olga Kovalkova, said the about-face came under pressure from the authorities who made Tsikhanouskaya read a prepared statement and then drove her out of the country.
“We don’t know what kind of pressure she was subjected to and how they tried to break her,” Kovalkova said. “She couldn’t have said it on her own. She was reading a prepared text.”
She said that Tsikhanouskaya left the country with her campaign chief, Maria Moroz, who had been detained over the weekend. Several other campaign aides have remained in custody.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994, derided the opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters and vowed to continue the tough crackdown on protests despite Western rebukes.
Election officials said Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with 80% of the vote, while Tsikhanouskaya got 10%.
When asked on Monday if she was planning to go abroad to avoid being arrested, Tsikhanouskaya said she had no such plan and saw no reason why she would be arrested.
But after submitting her formal demand for a recount to Belarus’ Central Election Commission, she told her allies: “I have made a decision, I must be with my children.”
Speaking in the video statement from Lithuania, she emphasized that “children are the most important thing in our lives” and conceded her weakness.
“I thought that the campaign had tempered me and make me so strong that I could resist anything,” said Tsikhanouskaya, her face haggard and her voice breaking. “But it appears that I have remained the same weak woman that I was before.”
She had previously sent her children to an unspecified European country after receiving threats.
Before visiting the election commission on Monday, Tsikhanouskaya said she didn’t agree with the election results.
“We have official protocols from many polling stations, where the number of votes in my favor are many more times than for another candidate,” Tsikhanouskaya told the AP.
Economic damage caused by the coronavirus and Lukashenko’s swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as “psychosis,” has fueled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks. The post-election protest, in which young demonstrators — many of them teenagers — confronted police, marked a previously unseen level of violence.
Rumors that Tsikhanouskaya had left the country began circulating among the protesters as they confronted police overnight, but the news didn’t discourage them from continuing their resistance.
“She had a clear choice: to be in a Belarusian jail or to remain free in Lithuania,” said 21-year-old Kirill Kulevich. “Tsikhanouskaya has called herself a symbol of change, but they are forcing us to continue living as before.”
Another protester, 20-year-old Anna Vitushko, said that protests will continue.
“People are protesting against the crude falsifications, and her departure doesn’t mean anything,” Vitushko said. “If Lukashenko won 80%, why does he need riot police, rubber bullets and water cannon? They can cheat a few percent of the population, but they can’t cheat the entire country.”
Scores were detained as police relentlessly dispersed scattered groups of protesters in Minsk overnight.
The crackdown on protesters drew harsh criticism from the European Union and the United States and will likely complicate Lukashenko’s efforts to mend ties with the West amid tensions with his main ally and sponsor, Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the election was not “free and fair,” and added: “We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters.”
The European Union condemned the police crackdown and called for an immediate release of all those detained.