Belarusian challenger leaves the country amid protests

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The top opposition candidate in Belarus’ presidential vote, who refused to concede her defeat amid a massive police crackdown on protesters, said yesterday she has left the country and is now in Lithuania.

Looking tired and distressed, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher and political novice, apologised 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 later, she urged her supporters to respect the law and avoid clashes with police.

The unexpected move led some of her supporters to speculate that she may have been acting under duress.

Police block a square during a mass protest following the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, late Monday. PHOTO: AP

Tsikhanouskaya’s husband is in prison in Belarus. Tsikhanouskaya previously dismissed the official results of last 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 yesterday 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 hospitalised.