MINSK – The top opposition candidate in Belarus' presidential election left for Lithuania Tuesday but anti-government demonstrators still turned out for a third straight night to protest the vote results, despite a massive police crackdown that prompted a warning of possible European Union sanctions.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Minsk and several other cities on Tuesday evening. Clashes between the protesters and police using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds continued well into the night.
Earlier on Tuesday Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 37, a former English teacher who entered the race after her husband's jailing in Belarus, apologized to her backers in a video statement and said it was her own choice to leave the country.
“It was a very hard decision to make,” Tsikhanouskaya said, looking haggard and distressed. “I know that many of you will understand me, many others will condemn me and some will even hate me. But God forbid you ever face the choice that I faced.”
In another video statement released later Tuesday, she urged her supporters to respect the law and to avoid clashes with police.
The statements marked an abrupt about-face for Tsikhanouskaya hours after she dismissed the official results of Sunday’s election that showed President Alexander Lukashenko winning a sixth term with a landslide 80% of the vote, and her getting just 10%.
Her campaign aides said she made the unexpected moves under duress. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, an opposition blogger who had hoped to run for president, has been jailed since his arrest in May.
“It's very difficult to resist pressure when your family and all your inner circle have been taken hostages,” Maria Kolesnikova, a top associate of Tsikhanouskaya's, said.