Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya says she has fled the country as protests engulf Belarus following the controversial re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
In a short YouTube clip posted Tuesday, Tsikhanouskaya said she had left to reunite with her children, whom she says moved abroad after receiving anonymous threats during her campaign. She did not specify her whereabouts, but a few hours ago Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted that Tsikhanouskaya was in Lithuania, which borders Belarus.
“It was a very difficult decision to make for me,”; said Tsikhanouskaya, 37, on the verge of tears. “I know a lot of people will understand me, a lot of people will judge me and a lot of people will hate me.”
Tsikhanouskaya’s spokeswoman did not immediately return NBC News request for comment. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said more details would be released later Tuesday.
Belarusian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Tsikhanouskaya officially won 10 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, compared to Lukashenko’s landslide of 80 percent, but the results were opposed by the Belarusian opposition.
She became a surprise opposition star in the months leading up to the election, gathering tens of thousands of supporters, along with two other opposition figures, in the biggest show of discontent Belarus has seen in a decade. She promised to call a new, 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 early results of the exit poll showing Lukashenka’s great superiority on Sunday night, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Minsk and several other cities.
Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday, removing hundreds of protesters by truck. Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday, removing hundreds of protesters by truck.
The country’s interior ministry said 89 people were injured during protests late Sunday and early Monday, including 39 law enforcement officers, and about 3,000 people were arrested.
Demonstrations continued Monday night, with police using water cannons and firing rubber bullets to disperse thousands of people in Minsk. Protesters also set up barricades in some areas and threw Molotov cocktails.
One protester has died, the Associated Press reported, citing the interior ministry.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
At a news conference Monday, Tsikhanouskaya, looking tired and degenerate, refused to admit it.
“Certainly we do not recognize these results,” she told reporters.
Lukashenko, meanwhile, was adamant, calling the opposition “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.
“We will not allow them to tear the country apart,” he said.
The former head of the Soviet collective farms has ruled Belarus, a nation of 9.5 million, with an iron fist since 1994.
But lingering complaints about the stagnant economy, human rights and misuse of Lukashenko’s coronavirus pandemic have sparked opposition this year.
The police crackdown on protesters drew sharp criticism from European and US officials and is likely to complicate Lukashenko’s efforts to mend ties 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,” condemning the ongoing violence.