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Opposition Presidential Candidate Flees Belarus Amid Nationwide Protests

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An update now on Belarus, where crowds across the country have been protesting vote rigging since Sunday's presidential election. Police reported the first death of a protester. Two hundred people remain hospitalized. Thousands have been arrested. And overnight, the main opposition candidate fled the country. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLASH-BANG GRENADE EXPLODING)

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The sound of flash-bang grenades echo through the Belarusian Russian capital, Minsk, at night as heard here on videos shared widely on social media. Police have used rubber bullets, tear gas and billy clubs on protesters. They're demanding free and fair elections and the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who's been in power for 26 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KIM: Amid the chaos last night, main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya suddenly went missing. In the morning, the foreign minister of neighboring Lithuania said she had safely arrived in his country. Then Tikhanovskaya herself appeared in a brief emotional video posted on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "I've made a very difficult decision," she said. "God forbid that anybody should face a choice I had to." Just a day earlier, Tikhanovskaya had said she saw no reason to fear arrest or leave the country. But she apparently changed her mind after a visit to the Central Election Commission where she demanded a recount of Sunday's vote. Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst in Minsk, says Tikhanovskaya's short political career may be over.

ARTYOM SHRAIBMAN: I don't think that Tikhanovskaya has a future as a political leader. She never called for this protest. She never organized them. The protests were never about her but rather about Lukashenko and the electoral fraud.

KIM: Tikhanovskaya was an accidental candidate who only decided to run for president after her husband, a popular blogger, was denied registration as a candidate and jailed. During the campaign, which saw hundreds of arrests of opposition activists, Tikhanovskaya sent her two children out of the country for safety reasons. President Lukashenko has dismissed Tikhanovskaya as an unhappy girl and labeled protesters sheep who take their orders from foreign puppet masters. During a visit to a new animal feed plant Monday, he issued a stark warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "There won't be a maidan here," he said, referring to the street revolution in neighboring Ukraine that overthrew a Kremlin-backed president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUKASHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "Our response will be appropriate," he said. "We won't let them tear apart our country."

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.