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Belarusian opposition leader flees abroad citing safety of her children

MINSK, Aug 11 (Reuters) - Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya said on Tuesday she had fled abroad for the sake of her children after strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko's claim of victory in Sunday's presidential election prompted bloody street protests.

* Tikhanouskaya in Lithuania with children, husband jailed

* New protests erupt in Minsk, dozens detained: Reuters witness (Adds protests erupt for third consecutive night)

By Andrei Makhovsky

Tikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher who took her husband’s place on the ballot after he was jailed, fled to neighbouring Lithuania. She urged her compatriots not to oppose the police and to avoid putting their lives in danger.

But unrest erupted for the third night in a row on Tuesday as thousands of protesters took to the streets accusing Lukashenko, in power since 1994, of swindling the vote.

A Reuters witness saw police detaining dozens of people, and beating some of them. The European Union accused Lukashenko’s government of “disproportionate and unacceptable violence” and said it was reviewing its relations with Minsk.

Car horns blared in solidarity with the opposition, and people clapped and shouted “go away”.

Although Tikhanouskaya’s husband Syarhei, an anti-government blogger, remains in jail in Belarus, she was reunited with her children in Lithuania. She had moved them earlier after receiving anonymous threats about their safety.

“You know, I thought that this whole campaign had really toughened me up and given me so much strength that I could handle anything,” she said in an emotional video.

“But, probably, I’m still the weak woman I was in the first place. I have made a very difficult decision for myself,” she said, adding that the political tumult in Belarus was not worth anyone losing their life for.

“Children are the main thing in life,” said Tikhanouskaya.

FLOWERS

The mood on the streets of Minsk had been calmer during the daytime on Tuesday, but a Reuters reporter saw riot police parked outside several factories in Minsk amid calls on anti-Lukashenko social media channels for a general strike.

People laid flowers at the site in central Minsk where a protester died in Monday’s clashes.

Lukashenko has compared the protesters to criminal gangs and dangerous revolutionaries with shadowy foreign backers. State media on Tuesday showed detained young men with their hands behind their backs, calling them “Russian provocateurs”.

Belarus has strained relations with Moscow, though President Vladimir Putin used a congratulatory telegram to nudge Lukashenko to accept closer ties. Lukashenko has long accused Russia of aiming to swallow up his nation of 9.5 million people.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said Tikhanouskaya had found herself in an impossible situation.

“She apparently faced certain pressure and did not have much choice but to leave the country,” he told a news conference.

“Apparently, the other choice was not compatible with freedom, so she needed to take the offered possibility to leave the country, and used it,” he said.

Lithuania had given her a one-year visa and a place to stay, he added, saying it would ensure her safety.

Belarusian authorities said she was not forced to leave but a separate video appearance, apparently filmed at the central election commission before she left Belarus, raised questions about her departure.

In it, she was seen reading from a piece of paper in stilted official language and reversed her earlier stance and asked supporters to accept the election’s outcome and stop protesting in order to prevent bloodshed.

It was unclear if the video had been made under duress or as part of a deal allowing her to leave the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Belarus’s election was “not free and fair” and condemned “ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters”.

The European Union said its relationship with Belarus was under review, though it declined to comment on whether sanctions would be reimposed on the country.

Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus since 1995, and the run-up to this month’s vote saw authorities jail Lukashenko’s rivals and open criminal investigations of others who voiced opposition.

Tikhanouskaya’s campaign rallies drew some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. (Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow and Andrius Sytas; writing by Matthias Williams/Andrew Osborn; editing by Gareth Jones and Grant McCool)

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