Belarus opposition leader sets October 25 deadline for Lukashenko to quit

FILE PHOTO: Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wears a face mask ahead of a meeting with Slovak President Zuzana Caputova at the Presidential Palace in Bratislava, Slovakia, October 8, 2020. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya set an Oct. 25 deadline on Tuesday for President Alexander Lukashenko to quit or face nationwide strikes that would paralyse the country.

The ultimatum came after the authorities intensified their crackdown on anti-government protests this week, resorting to water cannon, tear gas and flare guns. On Monday the police threatened to use combat weapons in the streets.

Unless Lukashenko announces his resignation, halts violence and releases political prisoners, “on Oct. 26, all enterprises will begin a strike, all roads will be blocked, state-owned stores will no longer have any sales,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement.

Tsikhanouskaya, whose followers say she won an Aug. 9 presidential election, fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the vote, in which Lukashenko was declared the winner.

A Tsikhanouskaya aide told Reuters the new ultimatum had been announced in response to the threat to use lethal weapons and increased police violence on the streets. Tsikhanouskaya expected the West to support her demands, the aide said.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians have demonstrated for nine straight weekends to demand Lukashenko step down. Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and says the protests are backed from abroad.

European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to add Lukashenko to a list of Belarusian officials hit by travel bans and asset freezes over the crisis.

Lukashenko went to a KGB jail in Minsk on Saturday where he met several detained opposition figures, including Viktor Babariko, a politician who was detained in July and barred from running in the election.

The Belta state news agency said Lukashenko had spoken about proposed changes to the constitution, reforms put forward as a way to end the political crisis but which his critics see as a stalling tactic.

Reporting By Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Peter Graff