MOSCOW, RUSSIA - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continued a crackdown against opponents to his rule - as thousands took to the streets Tuesday for a third straight night to protest a highly controversial election that saw him declared the winner despite allegations of vote rigging and violence by state security forces.
On Tuesday, Lukashenko's main rival in the race, Svetlana Tikahnovskaya announced she had fled the country - releasing an emotional video in which she hinted that the decision was done out of concern for the safety of her family.
"I thought that this campaign had really steeled me and given me so much strength that I could cope with anything," she said. "But I guess I'm still the same weak woman that I was."
"Not one life is worth what is happening now," she added. "Children are the most important things in our lives."
Lithuania's Foreign Minister later confirmed she had been offered asylum. Tikhanovskaya had evacuated her children to Lithuania in advance of the August 9 vote.
Yet, in a twist, Belarusian authorities later released their own video of Tikhanovskaya. In it, she read a statement calling for protesters to accept she had lost and end their protests.
Digital sleuths later determined that the video had been recorded sitting on a green couch in the office of the State Election Commission, where Tishanovskaya had come to formally contest the election results but was subsequently held for seven hours under duress.
A smashing victory or an election stolen?
Belarus's state election commission insisted Lukashenko won a landslide victory Sunday - extending the Belarusian leader's 26-year hold on power for a 6th term in office.
Official results showed Lukashenko with 80% of the vote - a staggering result given that the race was widely seen to have been the most contested election of the 65-year-old strongman's rule.
Much of that had to do with Tikhanovskaya, 37, who only entered the race after her husband was denied his candidacy and jailed by authorities.
Joined by the wives of other banned candidates, they drew massive crowds to rallies across the country with a simple promise: to hold real elections within six months of ending Lukashenko's rule by the ballot box.
Yet official results showed Tikahnovskaya receiving just under 10% of the vote - a figure her supporters say defied logic or reason.
Indeed, there were widespread reports of violations and evidence of vote rigging - including precincts where voter tallies far exceeded 100%.
Tikhanovskaya supporters had also folded their ballots in a unique pattern to easily identify them as they filled up in the clear plastic voting bins.
Several election workers from polling precincts also went public with suppressed vote tallies that showed a commanding victory for Tikhanovskaya.
Tikhhanovskaya had planned to present evidence of fraud to the Electoral Commission when she was detained.
Veronica Tsepkalo, the wife of exiled candidate Valery Tsepkalo, issued a video in which the two backed Tikhanovskaya and said the election had been stolen.
"We understand that on August 9th, 2020 Lukashenko lost the presidential elections," she said. "And the only legitimate president in the country is you - Svetlana Tikhanovskaya."
Valery Tsepkalo also announced he was forming a "National Salvation Front" in defense of the constitution.
Meanwhile, President Lukashenko issued threats to protesters he described as "sheep" operating under orders from abroad and vowing to meet them with force.
"There will be no Maidan," vowed Lukashenko, a reference to the Ukrainian street revolution of 2014 that overthrew the country's then Moscow-backed leader.
The U.S. and European Union issued scathing assessments of an election carried out without the presence of independent observers.
"The election night was marred with disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters," said the EU in a statement.
"Following their unprecedented mobilization for free elections and democracy, the Belarusian people now expect their votes to be counted accurately."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement labeling the vote as "neither free nor fair."
Presumptive Democratic party presidential nominee Joseph Biden took aim at the ensuing crackdown on protesters, noting "these are not the actions of a political leader confident that he has won a fairly conducted election."
A police crackdown
For a third straight night Tuesday, Minsk was witness to a violent crackdown by interior ministry forces against protesters.
Riot police in the capital fired repeatedly on unarmed demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades.
Belarus's Interior Ministry said troops had fired live munitions against aggressive protesters in the city of Bresk, injuring at least one.
Despite spotty cell phone and Internet service, social media was full of clips of demonstrators being detained and beaten by masked security forces.
Police reported 6,000 arrests with 200 people injured and one protester killed in the melee. Authorities also announced 17 criminal cases against protesters who now face the prospect of long prison sentences.
On Wednesday, the Mediazona news service published a video in which relatives of the detained gathered outside the central prison in Minsk.
Screams could be heard emanating from inside the building's walls.
"Hang on," family members chanted in response. "Hang on."