Thousands of protesters have been dispersed by Belarusian police as they flooded the streets in opposition of early election results that indicate longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has secured a landslide victory, writes Rachael Kennedy with AP.
State agency Belta reported on Monday (10 August) the incumbent president had secured 80.23% of the vote, while election officials said his main opponent, former schoolteacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was left with just 9.9%.
There had been a reported 79% turnout by 18h CET on Sunday (9 August) — an hour before polls closed — the Central Election Commission in Belarus said.
Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice who filed her candidacy after her opposition blogger husband was jailed, rejected the claims of early results as thousands of her supporters came out onto the streets to demonstrate.
"I will believe my own eyes," she said, adding: "The majority was for us."
Police in full riot gear responded to the marches with violent dispersal, firing flash-bang grenades and beating protesters with truncheons.
According to one leading rights group, Viasna, hundreds were detained amid the brutal crackdown.
A victory for Lukashenko would mark a sixth term in office for the 65-year-old, who has ruled the former-Soviet nation with an iron hand for more than a quarter of a century.
Nicknamed "Europe's last dictator," he warned the opposition over the weekend that if they should "provoke" him, they would get "the same answer" in return.
He said: "Do you want to try to overthrow the government, break something, wound, offend, and expect me or someone to kneel in front of you and kiss them and the sand onto which you wandered?
"This will not happen."
Injuries, too, were reported among the protesters on Sunday night, while the Associated Press said one of its journalists had been taken to hospital after being beaten by police.
Pavel Konoplyanik, a 23-year-old protester accompanying his friend to Minsk's No 10 hospital for treatment, said: "It was a peaceful protest, we weren't using force."
Both he and his friend had been injured, with the former being cut by fragments of police grenades and the latter getting a plastic grenade fragment lodged in his neck.
Konoplyanik added: "No one will believe in the official results of the vote. They have stolen our victory."
The 23-year-old said he didn't want to leave his country, but thought they may eventually be no other choice.
Belarus has a long history of violent crackdowns on dissent, with protesters being beaten after an election in 2010, where six candidates were also arrested.
Keeping this in mind, Tsikhanouskaya called for a "peaceful" night on Sunday, and said she had hoped officers would not use force.
The former English teacher may not have any experience in politics, but she has managed to unite opposition groups under her name, and attracted tens of thousands of people to her rallies after emerging as an unlikely candidate to take on Lukashenko.
It came after two other opponents, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, had their candidacies rejected.
Babariko is the head of a Russia-owned bank and had been jailed for charges that he maintains are political, while Tsepkalo is an entrepreneur and former ambassador to the United States, who fled to Russia with his children after fears he would be arrested.
Tsepkalo's wife, Veronika, stayed behind to become a leading member of Tsikhanouskaya's eventual presidential campaign, but she, too, fled the country on Sunday due to fears for her safety.
Eight of Tsikhanouskaya's campaign staff were reportedly arrested over the weekend.
Honest People, an independent association in Belarus that monitors elections, said observers had found at least 5,096 violations during the vote.
It also called into question the election commission's reported turnout statistics, and said around 70 observers had been detained.
But despite widespread dissent on the streets across Belarus, with its population of 9.5 million, there are still many who have expressed support of their hard-line leader.
Retiree Igor Rozhov said Lukashenko was an "experienced politician" rather than "a housewife who appeared out of nowhere and muddied the waters".
He added: "We need a strong hand that will not allow riots."