Lithuania’s foreign minister said Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main challenger to Alexander Lukashenko in Sunday’s presidential election in Belarus, had crossed the border and was safe.
On Tuesday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said Belarusian opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had crossed the border during the protests in her home country and was safe.
Tikhanovskaya’s whereabouts were unknown late Monday. Her support team had been unable to reach her by phone after she left the election commission building.
In a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya said she made the “difficult decision” to leave the country.
‘God forbid anyone face this choice’
“You know, I thought that this whole campaign really had hardened me and given me so much strength that I could handle anything,” she said. “But, probably, I’m still the weak woman I was in the first place. I have made a very difficult decision for myself.”
“I made this decision absolutely independently,” she added.
The Belarusian government had insisted that she left on her own accord.
“Children are the most important thing we have in life,” said Tikhanovskaya in her video.
“I know that many will understand me, many will judge me, and many will begin to hate me,” she said, explaining her decision to leave Belarus. “But god forbid anyone face the choice I had.”
“People please take care of yourselves,” she added. “What is happening now is not worth a single life.”
Contested election result
Incumbent Belarusian President Alexander Lukansheko claimed victory in Sunday’s election with 80% of the vote, despite widely held claims that the election was not fair.
Tikhanovskaya had also claimed victory on Sunday, telling reporters “the authorities need to think about peaceful ways to hand over power. Of course we do not recognize the results.”
Lukashenko has held a firm grip on power in Belarus since winning the presidency in 1994.
Tikhanovskaya’s rallies drew some of the largest crowds in Belarus since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. A former English teacher, she was initially reluctant to run in the election after she said she received an anonymous threat that her children would be taken away. She moved her children to Lithuania during the campaign.
A spokeswoman for Lithuania’s foreign ministry told Reuters “she is resting with her children.”
Second day of protests
Protests continued throughout Belarus Monday night, leading to at least one death. The opposition has accused Lukashenko of rigging the vote in order to win his sixth straight term in office. Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades at protesters in the capital, Minsk. Protesters created barricades and retaliated with rocks and petrol bombs.
Local media also reported violence in other towns.
Lithuania, a NATO and European Union member, which along with Belarus used to be part of the Soviet Union, has a history of granting refuge to Belarusian and Russian opposition figures, Vilnius university analyst Laurynas Jonavicius told AFP.
The Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, is about 170 kilometers (106 miles) northwest of Minsk. The city showed its solidarity with Belarusian protesters by lighting up its bridges in white-red-white — the colors of the historical Belarusian flag that has been used by opposition activists.
EU-Belarus ties ‘under review’
The European Union has said its relationship with Belarus is “under review” after Sunday’s contested election.
“The whole range of issues related to the relations between the European Union and Belarus is currently under review due to the unfortunate events which were related to the presidential elections on Sunday,” said a spokesman for the European Commission, adding that a joint declaration from all 27 member states was being prepared.
While Belarus is not an EU member, it maintains a bilateral relationship with Brussels.
This is an updated version of a previous article.
kbd/dr (Reuters, AFP, AP)