Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya said on Tuesday she had fled abroad for the sake of her children, after two nights of clashes following the contested re-election of strongman President Alexander Lukashenko.
Ms. Tikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, emerged from obscurity to mount the biggest challenge in years to Mr. Lukashenko, taking her husband’s place in the campaign after he was jailed.
“You know, I thought that this whole campaign really had hardened me and given me so much strength that I could handle anything,” she said, explaining her decision in a sombre video released on her husband’s YouTube channel.
“But, probably, I’m still the weak woman I was in the first place. I have made a very difficult decision for myself.”
Both she and the Belarusian authorities said she had not been forced to leave.
There had been concern about Ms. Tikhanouskaya’s whereabouts after her campaign team said on Monday they had been unable to reach her by phone hours after she was known to have left a meeting with Central Election Commission officials.
By Tuesday morning, she had joined her children in Lithuania. The state border committee later confirmed her departure.
“And I know that many people will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me. But, you know, God forbid being faced with such a choice the I was faced with,” she said.
“So, people, take care please – no life is worth what is happening now. Children are the most important thing in our lives.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said, “She apparently faced certain pressure and did not have much choice but to leave the country.”
At least one person died as police clashed with protesters on Monday after the opposition accused Mr. Lukashenko of rigging the vote amid widespread criticism from Western leaders.
Helmeted police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades and used batons to disperse thousands of people in Minsk in a second night of violence. Protesters set up barricades in several areas and threw petrol bombs.
Local media reported clashes in other towns.
In power for more than a quarter of a century, Mr. Lukashenko has compared the protesters to criminal gangs and dangerous revolutionaries with shadowy foreign backers.