Protesters clashed with riot police for the third night running in cities across Belarus after the European Union threatened to re-impose sanctions for alleged vote rigging and a violent crackdown on demonstrators.
After that, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the president’s main challenger for a long time said she had fled the country to protect her children, security forces fired rubber bullets and grenades to disperse thousands of protesters in the capital, Minsk.
The heavy police presence failed to deter protesters, who took to the streets accusing Alexander Lukashenko of rigging Sunday’s election results.
Witnesses reported that security forces detained dozens of people and beat protesters in the streets.
In footage shared on social media, security forces were seen shooting at car windows and dragging people from vehicles to attack them.
Agence France-Presse reporters saw print photographers print by police, pulling out memory cards from their cameras and breaking lenses. A photographer for the Associated Press confirmed the allegations.
Car horns were taken in solidarity with the opposition and people marched, applauded and shouted “get away”. Protesters said Tikhanovskaya’s departure would not stop their movement. “Our goal is to overthrow the Lukashenko regime,” Yakov, a 51-year-old engineer, told AFP in Minsk.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed blogger who won massive support in her fight against Lukashenko, appeared in a video Tuesday morning saying she had left the country for neighboring Lithuania for the sake of her children’s safety.
“You know, I thought this whole campaign had strengthened me and given me so much strength that I could not afford anything,” she said in an exciting video. “But, for sure, I’m still the weak woman I was in the first place. I’ve made a very difficult decision for myself,” she said, adding that political unrest is not worth losing anyone’s life for.
“Children are the main thing in life,” said Tikhanouskaya, who ran only for office because her husband, Syarhei, was jailed for his anti-government activism.
Belarusian state media published a second video in which Tikhanovskaya urged supporters not to protest. Her allies said she was registered under pressure.
Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister, said she was now safe in his country.
The EU condemned the result of Sunday’s election, which was officially declared a landslide for Lukashenko with 80% of the vote. Tikhanovskaya, 37, came in second with 10% despite staging large campaign rallies that observers said represented the largest protest ever seen during Lukashneko’s 26-year rule.
Brussels said the election was “neither free nor fair” and warned it could punish those responsible for “violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results”.
He also accused the Lukashenko government of “disproportionate and unacceptable violence” against protesters and said it was reviewing its relations with Minsk.
The Belarussian government said on Tuesday that more than 2,000 people had been arrested across the country for taking part in unprecedented protests Monday night and in the early hours of Tuesday. He added that 21 police officers were injured in clashes with protesters and five of them were hospitalized.
The day before, the government reported more than 3,000 detentions and said 89 people were injured, including 39 law enforcement officers.
The first fatality was confirmed Monday when police said a man died after an explosive device came out of his hand. On Tuesday, people placing white flowers and ribbons at the site in Minsk, where he died, were allegedly targeted by rebel police.
“You can shut down Tikhanovskaya, but you will not be able to intimidate and shut down an entire nation. We continue peaceful protests and do not recognize Lukashenko as president,” said 24-year-old protester Denis Kruglyakov.
The human rights group Viasna also reported mass bans in the cities of Grodno, Brest and Vitebsk.
The internet remained blocked for the third day in a row in what appeared to be an attempt by authorities to make it harder for protesters to coordinate their efforts and for people to find out what happened to their missing relatives. “We are still waiting for any sign or information,” said Lena Radomanova, who is looking for a friend who is missing.
The White House said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence. Poland offered to act as a mediator between Lukashenko and the opposition and called for an urgent EU summit.
Mr Lukashenko has vowed not to allow Belarus to “disintegrate” and ousted protesters like foreign powers.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said there was “irrefutable” evidence of “outside interference”.