Belarus said on Friday it is seeking the arrest of exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya for jeopardizing national security, days after she called for a general strike if the President does not yield to protesters' demands to quit.
Ahead of the next big weekly protest on Sunday, a senior police official said on television that officers would use firearms if needed against demonstrators, raising the stakes in the standoff over a country closely allied with Russia.
“We will, of course, humanely use weapons against them, including firearms, and we will remove the most dangerous [ones] from the streets,” said Nikolai Karpenkov, head of the police unit tasked with fighting organized crime and corruption.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania shortly after disputing the results of the Aug. 9 Berlarus presidential election which gave victory to long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko. She had challenged Mr. Lukashenko at the ballot box in place of her husband after he was arrested.
While her supporters have continued holding mass protests despite crackdowns by police and thousands of arrests, she has been urging European political leaders to mediate.
On Tuesday, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya set an Oct. 25 deadline for Mr. Lukashenko to quit or face nationwide strikes that would paralyze the country after the security forces first threatened to use combat weapons in the streets.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya met for talks in Vilnius on Friday with Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne.
It was their fifth conversation but first face-to-face meeting since she sought refuge after rallying support against Lukashenko.
Champagne first called Tsikhanouskaya in August, and has since worked with his British counterpart, Dominic Raab to level sanctions against Lukashenko, his family and ministers in response to their violent clampdown on the pro-democracy movement that has taken root in Belarus.
Champagne said that Tsikhanouskaya told him Canada’s early support was “pivotal” in her efforts to keep fighting for democracy.
“It was a very special moment. Sometimes you do things and you don’t fully appreciate the impact,” Champagne said in a teleconference from Vilnius.
“I think she holds Canada and our intervention very high in her heart because we were there since Day 1, and we have been consistently engaging with her, engaging with the movement, supporting them at every step of the way.”
The Belarus Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency, said it had put Ms. Tsikhanouskaya on its wanted list for publicly calling for actions seeking to harm national security.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda condemned the move and called on fellow members of the European Union to stand by her.
“Do hope that #EU countries will remain united & ignore this illegal warrant. #Tsikhanouskaya may be wanted in Belarus but #EU should keep all doors open for her,” he wrote on Twitter.
Security forces have detained more than 13,000 people during a postelection crackdown, some of whom have later been freed. Mr. Lukashenko’s key political opponents are either in jail or have fled abroad.
“This [move to put Ms. Tsikhanouskaya on the wanted list] doesn’t surprise anyone. It’s clear the regime has no legal ways of retaining power,” said Anna Krasulina, a spokeswoman for the opposition leader.
Mr. Lukashenko has proposed changing the constitution to resolve the political crisis in Belarus, an idea backed by Russia. But Mr. Lukashenko’s critics see the proposals as part of a stalling tactic to take the sting out of their protests.
-With a file from Canadian Press
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