Belarus seeks presidential challenger's arrest, threatens to use firearms at protests

By Tom Balmforth, Reuters | Updated - Oct. 16, 2020 at 8:14 a.m. | Posted - Oct. 16, 2020 at 3:20 a.m.

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MOSCOW — Belarus said on Friday it was seeking the arrest of exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya for jeopardizing national security, days after she called for a general strike if the president does not yield to protesters' demands to quit.

A senior police official said on television that officers would use firearms if needed against demonstrators ahead of the next big weekly protest on Sunday, further raising the stakes in the standoff over a country closely allied with Russia.

"We will of course humanely use weapons against them, including firearms, and we will remove the most dangerous (ones) from the streets," said Nikolai Karpenkov, head of the police unit tasked with fighting organized crime and corruption.

Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighboring Lithuania shortly after disputing the results of an Aug. 9 election which gave victory to longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko. She had challenged him at the ballot box in place of her husband after he was arrested.

While her supporters have continued holding mass protests despite crackdowns by police and thousands of arrests, she has been urging European political leaders to mediate.

On Tuesday, Tsikhanouskaya set an Oct. 25 deadline for Lukashenko to quit or face nationwide strikes that would paralyze the country after the security forces first threatened to use combat weapons in the streets.

The Belarus Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency, said it had put Tsikhanouskaya on its wanted list for publicly calling for actions seeking to harm national security.

Gitanas Nausėda, the president of Lithuania, which neighbors Belarus, condemned the move and called on fellow members of the European Union to stand by her.

"Do hope that #EU countries will remain united & ignore this illegal warrant. #Tsikhanouskaya may be wanted in Belarus but #EU should keep all doors open for her," he wrote on Twitter.

Security forces have detained more than 13,000 people during a post-election crackdown, some of whom have been later freed. Lukashenko's key political opponents are either in jail or have fled abroad.

"This (move to put Tsikhanouskaya on the wanted list) doesn't surprise anyone. It's clear the regime has no legal ways of retaining power," said Anna Krasulina, a spokeswoman for the opposition leader.

(Additional reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Alison Williams and Philippa Fletcher)

© Copyright Thomson Reuters 2020


Tom Balmforth

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