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Opposition leader flees the country amid protests



Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya said she fled the country when protests swept across Belarus following the controversial re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

In a short clip on YouTube posted Tuesday, Tsikhanouskaya said she left to reunite with her children. She said she moved abroad after receiving anonymous threats during her campaign. She did not disclose her whereabouts, but a few hours earlier, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted that Tsikhanouskaya was in Lithuania, which borders Belarus.

“It was a very difficult decision for me,”

; said 37-year-old Tsikhanouskaya, close to tears. “I know a lot of people will understand me, many will judge me, and many will hate me.”

Tsikhanouskaya’s rep did not immediately return NBC News’ request for comment. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said more details will be released later on Tuesday.

Belarusian officials were not immediately available to comment.

Tsikhanouskaya officially won 10 percent of the vote in the Sunday elections, compared to Lukashenko’s 80 percent landslide, but the results have been contested by the Belarusian opposition.

In the months leading up to the election, she became a surprising opposition star, gathering tens of thousands of supporters along with two other opposition women on the biggest show of discontent Belarus has seen in a decade. She promised to hold another fair election if she won.

Tsikhanouskaya entered the race after her husband, a political blogger who had hoped to run for president, was jailed. Her departure is likely to be a bitter pill for her supporters, who have been protesting the results since Sunday.

With the results of the early exit poll, which showed Lukashenko’s huge lead on Sunday evening, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Minsk and several other cities.

The police used a water cannon against demonstrators at a rally by supporters of the opposition in Minsk on Monday. Sergei Gapon / AFP – Getty Images

Police used tear gas against demonstrators and drugged grenades amid widespread internet and cell phone outages.

The country’s interior ministry said 89 people were injured, including 39 police officers, and about 3,000 people were arrested in the late Sunday and early Monday protests.

The demonstrations continued on Monday evening. Police used water cannons and fired rubber bullets to disperse thousands of people in Minsk. Protesters also set up barricades in several areas and threw Molotov cocktails.

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

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In a press conference on Monday, Tsikhanouskaya refused to admit looking tired and depressed.

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

In the meantime, Lukashenko was defiant and called the opposition “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.

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

Police blocked a square during a mass protest in Minsk early Tuesday.AP

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

But long-standing complaints about the stagnating economy, human rights and Lukashenko’s mistreatment of the coronavirus pandemic have fueled opposition this year.

Police crackdown on protesters has been harshly criticized by European officials and the US and is likely to complicate Lukashenko’s efforts to improve relations with the West amid tensions with Russia, his main ally.

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




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