The top opposition candidate in Belarus' presidential vote, who initially refused to concede her defeat amid a massive police crackdown on anti-government protesters, said Tuesday she has left for Lithuania and called on her supporters to end demonstrations.
Looking haggard and distressed, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher and political novice, apologized to her supporters in a video statement and said it was her own choice to leave the country.
"It was a very hard decision to make," she said. "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 on Tuesday, she urged her supporters to respect the law and avoid clashes with police.
Her campaign aides said she made the unexpected move under duress. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya's husband has been at a Belarusian jail since his arrest in May.
"It's very difficult to resist pressure when your family and all your inner circle have been taken hostages," said Maria Kolesnikova, a top figure in Ms. Tsikhanouskaya's campaign.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya previously dismissed the official results of Sunday's election showing authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko winning a sixth term by a landslide. Thousands of opposition supporters who also protested the results met with a tough police crackdown in Minsk and several other Belarusian cities for two straight nights.
On Monday, a protester died amid the clashes in Minsk and scores were injured as police used tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators. The Interior Ministry said the victim intended to throw an explosive device, but it blew up in his hand and killed him.
The ministry said Tuesday that more than 2,000 people were detained across the country for taking part in unsanctioned protests on Monday evening and overnight. It added that 21 police officers were injured in clashes with protesters, and five of them were hospitalized.
The previous day, the ministry reported more than 3,000 detentions and said 89 people were injured, including 39 law enforcement officers.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, a 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 in Belarus since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the video statement posted on her Facebook, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya thanked her supporters for backing her candidacy, but added that "the people of Belarus have made their choice."
"Belarusians, I'm urging you to show common sense and respect for the law," she said, reading a text without raising her eyes from the paper. "I don't want blood and violence. I'm asking you not to confront the police and not take to squares to put your lives in danger. Take care of yourselves and your relatives."
Hours before that, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya disputed the vote results and submitted a formal request for a recount to the Central Election Commission. She stayed in the commission headquarters for hours and faced senior law enforcement officers, according to her campaign aides.
One aide, Olga Kovalkova, said the about-face came under pressure from the authorities who made Ms. Tsikhanouskaya read a prepared statement and then drove her out of the country.
"We don't know what kind of pressure she was subjected to and how they tried to break her," Ms. Kovalkova said. "She couldn't have said it on her own. She was reading a prepared text."
She said that Ms. Tsikhanouskaya left the country with her campaign chief, Maria Moroz, who had been detained over the weekend. Several other campaign aides have remained in custody.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said the videos posted by Ms. Tsikhanouskaya had been recorded in Belarus before her journey to Vilnius.
Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994, derided the opposition as "sheep" manipulated by foreign masters and vowed to continue the tough crackdown on protests despite Western rebukes.
Election officials said Mr. Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with 80% of the vote, while Ms. Tsikhanouskaya got 10%.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya disputed the election results on Monday and vowed to demand a recount. "We have official protocols from many polling stations, where the number of votes in my favor are many more times than for another candidate," she told the AP.
When asked Monday if she was planning to go abroad to avoid being arrested, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said she had no such plan and saw no reason why she would be arrested. But hours later she went to Belarus' Central Election Commission to submit a formal request for a recount and wasn't seen again until showing up in Lithuania on Tuesday.
She previously had sent her children there after receiving threats early in the campaign.
"I thought that the campaign had tempered me and make me so strong that I could resist anything," Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said in the first of her two videos, her face haggard and her voice breaking. "But it appears that I have remained the same weak woman that I was before."
Economic damage caused by the coronavirus and Mr. 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.
Rumors that Ms. Tsikhanouskaya had left the country began circulating among the protesters as they confronted police overnight, but the news didn't discourage them from continuing their resistance.
"She had a clear choice: to be in a Belarusian jail or to remain free in Lithuania," said protester Kirill Kulevich. "Tsikhanouskaya has called herself a symbol of change, but they are forcing us to continue living as before."
Another protester, Anna Vitushko, said that protests will continue.
"People are protesting against the crude falsifications, and her departure doesn't mean anything," Ms. Vitushko said. "If Lukashenko won 80%, why does he need riot police, rubber bullets, and water [cannons]? They can cheat a few percent of the population, but they can't cheat the entire country."
Heavy police cordons on Minsk's central squares and avenues didn't stop the demonstrators from gathering around the downtown for the past two nights, chanting "Freedom!" and "Long live Belarus!" Motorists were blaring horns in a sign of support, and some used their cars to block police vehicles' passage.
The Interior Ministry responded by warning Tuesday that such vehicles will be impounded and their owners could face criminal charges.
More rallies are expected later in the evening.
The crackdown on protesters drew harsh criticism from the European Union and the United States and will likely complicate Mr. Lukashenko's efforts to mend ties with the West amid tensions with his main ally and sponsor, Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the election was not "free and fair," and added: "We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters."
The European Union condemned the police crackdown and called for an immediate release of all those detained.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow; Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania; and Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report.