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Belarus ruler vows to quash opposition rallies after vote

Vows to quash opposition

Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko warned Monday that the opposition protesters who challenge the official vote results extending his 26-year rule will face a tough crackdown, deriding them as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.

Dozens were injured and thousands detained hours after Sunday's vote, when police brutally broke up mostly young protesters with tear gas, water cannons and flash-bang grenades and beat them with truncheons. Rights activists said one person died after being run over by a police truck — which the authorities denied.

Election officials said Monday that Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with over 80% of the vote, while opposition challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya got 9.9%. Tsikhanouskaya dismissed the official results as a sham and vowed to dispute them, and the opposition is planning new protests in the capital, Minsk, and other cities later in the day.

The brutal police crackdown drew harsh criticism from European capitals and will likely complicate Lukashenko’s efforts to mend ties with the West amid tensions with his main ally and sponsor, Russia.

But Lukashenko, whose 26-year iron-fisted rule has fueled growing discontent in the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million, warned that he wouldn’t hesitate to use force again to disperse the opposition demonstrations. He argued that the protesters met a due response overnight after injuring 25 police officers and attempting to take control of official buildings in several Belarusian cities.

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

The 65-year-old former state farm director asserted that the opposition was being directed from Poland and the Czech Republic, adding that some groups in Ukraine and Russia could also have been behind the protests.

“They are directing our sheep, who don’t understand what they are doing,” he said.

The Interior Ministry said 89 people were injured during the protests, including 39 law enforcement officers, and about 3,000 people were detained, some 1,000 of them in Minsk. It insisted that no one was killed during the protests and called reports about a fatality “an absolute fake.”

Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher without any prior political experience, 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 since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

“We don’t agree with (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 favour are many more times than for another candidate."

The coronavirus-induced economic damage and Lukashenko's swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as “psychosis,” has fueled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks. The post-election protest, in which young demonstrators — many of them teenagers — confronted police, marked a previously unseen level of violence.

Internet and mobile networks went down after the polls closed as authorities tried to make it more difficult for protesters to co-ordinate.

“The more they beat us, the less we believe in the official results,” said Denis Golubev, a 28-year-old IT specialist who joined the protests. “They cut the internet and blocked communications to shut our mouths, but it won't stop the protests.”

The European Union condemned the police crackdown and called for an immediate release of all those detained.

In a joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the EU commissioner responsible for relations with Europe’s close neighbours, Oliver Varhelyi, lamented that “the election night was marred with disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters.”

“The Belarusian authorities must ensure that the fundamental right of peaceful assembly is respected,” they said.



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