Belarus presidential election candidate flees country amid crackdown on protests

The main opposition candidate in Belarus’ presidential election has fled her country amid a police crackdown on protests – and she is now “safe” in Lithuania.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s departure comes after she refused to concede defeat in Sunday’s vote.

The 37-year-old dismissed the official results showing authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko’s landslide victory as a sham.

Election officials said Mr Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with 80% of the vote while Ms Tsikhanouskaya got just 10%.

On Tuesday, Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius confirmed she was safe in his country.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who ran as an independent but attracted support from Belarus‘ political opposition, submitted a formal demand for a recount to the country’s central election commission.

Afterwards, she told her supporters: “I have made a decision, I must be with my children.”

She had earlier sent her two children to an unspecified European country after receiving threats.

Thousands of opposition supporters protested against the official vote results, which led to a tough police crackdown in Minsk and several other cities.

A protester died during the clashes in Minsk on Monday and dozens were injured as police used tear gas as well as flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to try to disperse the demonstrators.

Interior ministry spokesman Alexander Lastovsky said the victim intended to throw an explosive device but it blew up in his hand and killed him.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher without any prior political experience, entered the race after her husband Syarhei Tsikhanouski, an opposition blogger who had hoped to run for president, was arrested in May.

She 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.

President Lukashenko, who has led the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million since 1994, ridiculed the opposition, saying they were “sheep” who had been manipulated by foreign masters.

It comes as Twitter said it was being “throttled” as part of a social media shutdown in Belarus.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo criticised the use of internet shutdowns to “hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations”.

He added that he condemned the violence against protesters and described the vote as “not free and fair”.

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