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Belarus election: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya made 'independent' decision to flee to Lithuania

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By Rachael Kennedy  & AP
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is now "safe" in Lithuania
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is now "safe" in Lithuania   -   Copyright  AP
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Belarus' leading opposition candidate has said she made the decision "absolutely independently" to flee her country for Lithuania for her own wellbeing and for the wellbeing of her children.

Releasing a video on Tuesday, former English teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the current situation in Belarus was "not worth any life" as she referenced violent protests that have left one person dead.

She said: "You know, I thought all this campaign really toughened me and empowered me so much that I would withstand everything.

"But probably, I have remained that weak woman that I was initially. I made a very difficult decision for myself, and I've made it absolutely independently – neither friends, nor relatives, nor the campaign office, nor Sergei [her jailed husband Sergei Tikhanovsky] could influence it somehow.

"And I know that many will understand me, many will denounce me, and many will hate me.

"But you know, God forbid [anyone] to face the choice I faced. Therefore, people, please take care.

"What is happening now is not worth any life. Children are the most important thing we have in our life."

READ MORE | How Belarus has changed since 'Europe's last dictator' came to power — according to Belarusians

The footage was released just a day after Tsikhanouskaya went to the Electoral Commission in Belarus to formally request a recount of Sunday's presidential election, rejecting results that show authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko secured a landslide.

Upon leaving the Commission office, she said she had also made "a decision" to be with her children — but did not elaborate on what this meant.

The following morning, Lithuanian Linas Linkevicius confirmed the 37-year-old was now "safe" in his country.

In an interview with Euronews, Maria Kolesnikova, the head of a former candidate's campaign said she believed Tsikhanouskaya had been placed under "unprecedented pressure" while at the Commission office, where she was allegedly left alone for three hours with security force officials.

Kolesnikova said: "Yesterday, Svetlana and I went to file a complaint with the Central Election Commission. Svetlana was admitted with her lawyer to the office of Lidia Yermoshina, the head of the CEC.

"But later the lawyer went out and he was no longer allowed into this office. Lidia Yermoshina also quickly left this office.

"Thus, Svetlana was alone in the office with two high-ranking representatives of the security forces.

"For three hours she was there alone, without any documents, without a lawyer - nothing at all.

Kolesnikova said Tsikhanouskaya later left the building through another exit, rather than the entrance where they were waiting for her. They then discovered she had fled to Lithuania.

"I think that Svetlana was under unprecedented pressure for three hours," Kolesnikova added.

"None of us can imagine how hard it was for her to make that choice.

"I respect and support Svetlana's choice, because in such a situation it is always very difficult to act.

"She has done a lot for Belarus and for Belarusians. I think that what we have managed to do over the past few months is evidence of that. It has been a huge work."

Sergei Grits/AP
Svetlana Tikhanouskaya (centre) and Maria Kolesnikova (right)Sergei Grits/AP

Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice who filed her candidacy for president after her opposition blogger husband was jailed, earlier told the electorate that she had heard of an "absolutely opposite" result to Sunday's vote.

She said: "We are gathering proof of falsifications."

"We have people who are officially ready to confirm falsifications at poll stations.

"So we are starting to actively work on this and right now I'm going to the Central Election Commission to say that we don't accept the result of the elections."

Sergei Grits/AP
Thousands of people have been detainedSergei Grits/AP

Meanwhile, police officers were seen using flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to push back thousands of protesters flooding the streets across the country for a second consecutive day on Monday.

According to an interior ministry spokeswoman, one man died in the latest demonstration after an explosive device detonated in his hands.

Dozens of people were injured, while 3,000 more were detained — 1,000 in the capital Minsk.

READ MORE | Protests register their first fatality as police and demonstrators clash

Sergei Grits/AP
Dozens of people have been injured in the clashesSergei Grits/AP

The protests, which gathered in Minsk, Brest, Mogilev and Vitebsk, saw people shouting "freedom!" and "long live Belarus!" as police moved to violently disperse them.

Along with many Belarusians who have dismissed Lukashenko's overwhelming victory as a sham, a number of Western powers, too, have expressed doubts at the result.

They have also expressed sharp criticism of the police crackdown on protesters.

But election officials in Belarus maintain the longtime leader secured more than 80% of the vote on Sunday, leaving his main rival with just 10%.

READ MORE | Could mass protests lead to the downfall of 'Europe's last dictator'?

AP Photo
Alexander Lukashenko (left) won 80% of the vote, leaving Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (right) with 10%AP Photo

Lukashenko's victory will mark a sixth term in office for the 65-year-old, who has ruled the former-Soviet nation with an iron hand for more than a quarter of a century.

Nicknamed "Europe's last dictator," he warned on Monday that he would not be afraid to continue using force on protesters — whom he dubbed "sheep".

He said: "We will not allow them to tear the country apart" as he went on to claim the opposition were being directed from Poland and the Czech Republic, along with possible help from Ukraine and Russia.

"They are directing the [opposition] headquarters where those sheep don't understand what they want from them," he added.

Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek has denied the claim.

READ MORE | Who is long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko?

Sergei Grits/AP
Western powers have criticised the use of police force on protestersSergei Grits/AP

Belarus has a long history of violent crackdowns on dissent, with protesters being beaten after an election in 2010, where six candidates were also arrested.

Keeping this in mind, Tsikhanouskaya had called for a "peaceful" night as results came in over the weekend, and said she had hoped officers would not use force.

In another video circulating on social media, the 37-year-old urged people "not to go out to the square" to protest as she stressed she did not want "blood and violence".

"I ask you not to confront the police, not to go out to the square, so as not to endanger your lives.

"Take care of yourself and your loved ones."

Sergei Grits/AP
Rubber bullets and stun grenades were used to disperse protestersSergei Grits/AP

READ MORE | Thousands protest in Belarus calling for a fair election

Despite the former English teacher not having any experience in politics, she has managed to unite opposition groups under her name and attracted tens of thousands of people to her rallies after emerging as an unlikely candidate to take on Lukashenko.

It came after two other opponents, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, had their candidacies rejected.

Babariko is the head of a Russia-owned bank and had been jailed for charges that he maintains are political, while Tsepkalo is an entrepreneur and former ambassador to the United States, who fled to Russia with his children after fears he would be arrested.

Tsepkalo's wife, Veronika, stayed behind to become a leading member of Tsikhanouskaya's eventual presidential campaign, but she, too, fled the country on Sunday due to fears for her safety.