Belarusian opposition leader calls for more protests as pressure on Lukashenko increases

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MINSK (Reuters) – Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Friday called for more protests and a recount of the elections, putting pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko as he faces the biggest challenge of his 26 years in power.In a video posted to YouTube from Lithuania’s self-imposed exile, Tsikhanouskaya called on his supporters to demand a formal investigation into allegations that Lukashenko rigged last Sunday’s presidential election.

At least two protesters have been killed and thousands detained in a violent crackdown this week, prompting the European Union to consider further sanctions against Belarus, which Russia sees as a strategic buffer against NATO and the EU.

“Belarusians will never want to live with the old authorities again,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “Let’s defend our choice. Don’t stay away. Our voices must be heard. ”

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets for a sixth consecutive day to demand the resignation of Lukashenko, joined by workers from some of the state-owned industrial factories that are the centerpiece of his Soviet-style business model.

A teacher was shaking and crying softly, waving flowers in front of the concert hall of the State Philharmonic Orchestra, with a sign saying “I am a teacher, and I want to be proud of it!”.

In a rare raid, the government apologized for the use of force by releasing more than 2,000 protesters from detention.

Several had heavy bruises and complained of beatings, cramped conditions and starvation rations inside the cells. The government has denied abusing detainees.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, managing director of the bloc, tweeted:

“We need additional sanctions against those who violated democratic values ​​or violated human rights in Belarus. I am convinced that today’s discussion of EU foreign ministers will demonstrate our strong support for the rights of the Belarusian people to fundamental freedoms and democracy. ”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded the unconditional and immediate release of the detained demonstrators.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told his Swiss counterpart in an appeal that Minsk was ready for “constructive and objective dialogue with foreign partners” on election-related issues, the state news agency reported BelTA.

Employees of the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) are seen through an entry checkpoint during a rally to protest against the presidential election results and to demand re-election in Minsk, Belarus, on August 14, 2020. REUTERS / Vasily Fedosenko

Russia, which pushed Lukashenko to agree to closer political and economic ties, this week expressed concern over what it described as attempts by outside forces to destabilize Belarus.

” GO AWAY “

Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former Soviet collective farm manager, has faced growing anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic – which he called “psychosis” – as well as an economy and civil rights sluggish.

State television showed it by calmly saying a meeting, “I’m still alive, and not abroad.”

But even sections of society normally considered to be loyal began to dare to demonstrate their dissent.

Several television presenters and journalists from the tightly controlled state media resigned this week in solidarity with the protesters.

And thousands of people demonstrated Friday at the Minsk auto plant (MAZ, which manufactures trucks and buses, chanting “Shame on you!” And “Go!”, Echoing the unrest seen at several large factories this week .

Slideshow (4 Images)

Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to take her husband’s place in the election campaign after his incarceration, and has now led some of the biggest protests against Lukashenko since coming to power with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Shortly after the election, she fled to Lithuania, claiming it was for the sake of her children.

Lukashenko alleged a foreign-backed plot to destabilize Belarus and dismissed the protesters as criminals and unemployed people.

“This is the same choice that (President Bashar al-) Assad faced in Syria – either you recognize that the end is near or you go for more violence against your own people,” an official said. ‘EU, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Report by Andrei Makhovsky and Vasily Fedosenko in Minsk; Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn, Alexander Marrow and Maria Kisdomova in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Writing by Matthias Williams; Edited by Kevin Liffey

Our standards:Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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