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Belarus' ruler vows to quash opposition rallies after vote

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko warned Monday that the opposition protesters who challenge the official vote results extending his 26-year rule will face a tough crackdown, deriding them as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.

Dozens were injured and thousands detained hours after Sunday's vote, when police brutally broke up mostly young protesters with tear gas, water cannons and flash-bang grenades and beat them with truncheons. Rights activists said one person died after being run over by a police truck — which the authorities denied.

Election officials said Monday that Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with over 80% of the vote, while opposition challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya got 9.9%. Tsikhanouskaya dismissed the official results as a sham and vowed to dispute them, and the opposition is planning new protests in the capital, Minsk, and other cities later in the day.

The brutal police crackdown drew harsh criticism from European capitals and will likely complicate Lukashenko’s efforts to mend ties with the West amid tensions with his main ally and sponsor, Russia.

But Lukashenko, whose 26-year iron-fisted rule has fueled growing discontent in the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million, warned that he wouldn’t hesitate to use force again to disperse the opposition demonstrations. He argued that the protesters met a due response overnight after injuring 25 police officers and attempting to take control of official buildings in several Belarusian cities.

“We will not allow them to tear the country apart," he said. “We wanted to make it a holiday for the people. But some wanted to spoil that holiday.”

The 65-year-old former state farm director asserted that the opposition was being directed from Poland and the Czech Republic, adding that some groups in Ukraine and Russia could also have been behind the protests.

“They are directing our sheep, who don’t understand what they are doing,” he said.

The Interior Ministry said 89 people were injured during the protests, including 39 law enforcement officers, and about 3,000 people were detained, including about 1,000 in Minsk. It insisted that no one was killed during the protests and called reports about a fatality “an absolute fake.”

Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old 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 since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

The coronavirus-induced economic damage and 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.

“We don’t agree with (election results), we have absolutely opposite information," Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press on Monday. “We have official protocols from many poll stations, where the number of votes in my favor are many more times than for another candidate. We are gathering proof of falsification.”

The European Union condemned the police crackdown and called for an immediate release of all those detained.

In a joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the EU commissioner responsible for relations with Europe’s close neighbors, Oliver Varhelyi, lamented that “the election night was marred with disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters.”

“The Belarusian authorities must ensure that the fundamental right of peaceful assembly is respected,” they said, adding that the EU will watch developments to assess how to further shape relations with Belarus.

Belarus' EU and NATO neighbors, Poland and Lithuania, also issued strong rebukes. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on European Union’s leaders to convene an extraordinary summit to discuss Belarus, saying that the 27-member bloc should support the democratic aspirations of people in Belarus.

In the early 2000s, the United States and the European Union slapped sanctions against Lukashenko's government, but they lifted most of the penalties in recent years after Lukashenko freed political prisoners and allowed some opposition protests.

Throughout his tenure, Lukashenko has tried to exert pressure on the Kremlin with the prospect of normalizing ties with the West in a bid to win more Russian subsidies.

The violent crackdown now appears certain to derail Lukashenko's hopes for closer ties with the West, even as he tries to resist what he describes as Russia's attempts to encroach on Belarus' independence.

Moscow this year cut supplies of cheap oil to Belarusian refineries, depriving the country of an estimated $700 million in revenues from oil product exports to the West. Along with a bruising fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, it has deepened Belarus' economic problems and further eroded support for Lukashenko.

Russia-Belarus ties were further strained last week, when Belarusian law enforcement agencies arrested 33 Russian private military contractors and accused them of planning to stage “mass riots" in cahoots with Tsikhanouskaya's blogger husband. Tsikhanouskaya and Moscow have rejected the charges.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Lukashenko Friday to mend the rift, and quickly congratulated him Monday on winning the vote. The Belarusian leader also received congratulations from Chinese President Xi Jinping and leaders of ex-Soviet nations Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Analysts warn that even though Lukashenko can easily suppress the opposition protests, he will face mounting challenges ahead.

“Lukashenko's victory will bring him no relief, it will only exacerbate both domestic and external problems of Belarus that will snowball,” said Artyom Shraibman, an independent political analyst based in Minsk.

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Associated Press journalists Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov and Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.

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