Police, protesters clash after Belarus presidential vote

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Protesters gather after the Belarusian presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Police and protesters clashed in Belarus' capital and the major city of Brest on Sunday after the presidential election in which the authoritarian leader who has ruled for a quarter-century sought a sixth term in office. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

MINSK – Belarus police and protesters clashed in the capital and the city of Brest Sunday night after a presidential election in which the country's longtime leader sought a sixth term despite rising discontent with his authoritarian rule and his cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tensions have been rising for weeks ahead of Sunday's vote in the ex-Soviet nation, which pitted President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held an iron grip on Belarus since 1994, against four others. The campaign has generated the country's biggest opposition protests in years. Opposition supporters say they suspect election officials will manipulate the results of Sunday’s vote to give the 65-year-old Lukashenko a sixth term.

Officials had already denied two prominent opposition challengers places on the ballot, jailing one on charges he called political and prompting the other to flee to Russia with his children. The main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, came under heavy pressure over the weekend as eight members of her staff were arrested, and one of her top aides fled the country on Sunday.

Belarusians weary of the country's deteriorating economy and Lukashenko's repression of the opposition coalesced around Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher and the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, in large shows of support unusual for a country where crackdowns on dissent are routine.

The head of the Central Elections Commission, Lidia Yermoshina, said early Monday that partial results from some regions showed Lukashenko with a crushing lead, getting more than 90% of the vote in some districts.

Police presence in the capital of Minsk was heavy throughout the day and in the evening police set up checkpoints on the city's perimeter to check residence permits, apparently worried that protesters would come from other cities. Lukashenko had vowed to crush any protests.

About 1,000 protesters gathered near the obelisk honoring Minsk as a World War II “hero city,” where police harshly clashed with them, beating some with truncheons and later using flash-bang grenades to try to disperse them. Protesters later tried to build barricades with trash containers.

Protests also broke out in the major cities of Brest, Gomel, Grodno and Vitebsk and police fired tear gas at the demonstrators in Brest, news reports said.