Belarus seeks presidential challenger's arrest, threatens to use firearms at protests

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarus said on Friday it was seeking the arrest of exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya for jeopardising national security, days after she called for a general strike if the president does not yield to protesters’ demands to quit.

FILE PHOTO: Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya meets Greens party members at Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, October 6, 2020. REUTERS/Michele Tantussi

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 organised crime and corruption.

Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania shortly after disputing the results of an Aug. 9 election which gave victory to longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko. She had challenged him 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, Tsikhanouskaya set an Oct. 25 deadline for Lukashenko to quit or face nationwide strikes that would paralyse the country after the security forces first threatened to use combat weapons in the streets.

The Belarus Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency, said it had put 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 post-election crackdown, some of whom have been later freed. Lukashenko’s key political opponents are either in jail or have fled abroad.

“This (move to put 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.

Tsikhanouskaya met for talks in Vilnius on Friday with Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne. She also took to social media to urge Belarusians to vote against any proposals put forward by Lukashenko for constitutional reform.

Lukashenko has proposed changing the constitution to resolve the political crisis in Belarus, an idea backed by Russia. But Lukashenko’s critics see the proposals as part of a stalling tactic to take the sting out of their protests.

Additional reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Alison Williams and Philippa Fletcher