Belarus’ top opposition leader has fled her country after disputing the results of the presidential election and amid a police crackdown on those protesting authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is now “safe” in Lithuania, the country’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, said Tuesday.
The 37-year-old former English teacher had dismissed the official results of Sunday’s election showing Lukashenko, who first took charge of the ex-Soviet nation in 1994, winning a sixth term with 80% of the vote, while Tsikhanouskaya got 10%.
“We don’t agree with (the election results); we have absolutely opposite information,” Tsikhanouskaya told the Associated Press on Monday. “We have official protocols from many poll stations, where the number of votes in my favor are many more times than for another candidate.”
However, after submitting her formal demand for a recount to Belarus’ Central Election Commission, Tsikhanouskaya addressed her supporters in a video message.
She said: “I have made a decision, I must be with my children,” whom she had previously sent to an unspecified European country after receiving threats.
Tsikhanouskaya was thrust into the political arena without any prior experience. She 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.
Thousands of opposition supporters protested the election results for two straight nights in several Belarusian cities even after rumors circulated that Tsikhanouskaya had left the country.
Lukashenko derided the opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters and vowed to continue the tough crackdown on protests despite Western rebukes.
A protester died Monday amid the clashes in Minsk and scores were injured as police used tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets 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.
The police 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 Associated Press contributed to this report.