Opposition leader flees country amid protests

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Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya has said she fled the country as protests swept Belarus over the controversial re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

In a short YouTube clip posted on Tuesday, Tsikhanouskaya said she left to reunite with her children, whom she says she moved abroad after receiving anonymous threats during her campaign. She did not say where she was, but hours earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius had tweeted that Tsikhanouskaya was in Lithuania, on the border with Belarus.

“It was a very difficult decision for me to make,” said Tsikhanouskaya, 37, on the verge of tears. “I know that many people will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me.”

Tsikhanouskaya spokesperson did not immediately return NBC News’ request for comment. Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry said more details would be released later on Tuesday.

Belarusian officials were not immediately available for comment.

Tsikhanouskaya officially won 10% of the vote in Sunday’s election, up from 80% in Lukashenko’s landslide, but the results were contested by the Belarusian opposition.

She became a surprise opposition star in the months leading up to the elections, rallying tens of thousands of supporters, along with two other opposition women, in the biggest protest of discontent Belarus has ever seen in a decade. She promised to call a new election just if she wins.

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Tsikhanouskaya entered the race after her husband, a political blogger hoping to run for president, was jailed. His departure risks being a bitter pill for his supporters, who have been protesting against the results since Sunday.

With the first exit poll results showing Lukashenko’s big lead on Sunday night, thousands took to the streets of the capital Minsk and several other cities.

Police use a water cannon against protesters during a rally of opposition supporters in Minsk on Monday. Sergei Gapon / AFP – Getty Images

Police cracked down on protesters with tear gas and stun grenades amid widespread internet and cellphone blackouts.

The country’s interior ministry said 89 people were injured in protests on Sunday evening and Monday morning, including 39 law enforcement officers, and around 3,000 people were arrested.

Protests continued on Monday evening, with police using water cannons and firing rubber bullets to disperse thousands of people in Minsk. Protesters also erected barricades in several areas and threw Molotov cocktails.

One protester died, the Associated Press reported, citing the Home Office.

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During a press briefing on Monday, Tsikhanouskaya, looking tired and dejected, refused to give in.

“Of course, we don’t recognize these results,” she told reporters.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko was defiant, calling the opposition a “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.

“We will not allow them to tear the country apart,” he said.

Police blocked a square during a mass demonstration in Minsk on Tuesday morning.AP

The former boss of the Soviet collective farm has ruled Belarus, a nation of 9.5 million people, with an iron fist since 1994.

But long-standing grievances about a stagnant economy, human rights and Lukashenko’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic have fueled opposition this year.

The police crackdown on protesters has drawn strong criticism from European and US officials and will likely complicate Lukashenko’s efforts to reestablish ties with the West amid tensions with Russia, his main ally.

In a statement released on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the election was “not free and fair,” condemning the ongoing violence.

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