Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said late Thursday that he was putting the army on high alert and closing the country’s borders with Lithuania and Poland. Lukashenko has blamed the United States and its allies for fomenting the unrest following his landslide reelection to a sixth term last month, an outcome that protesters in Belarus say resulted from vote-rigging.
“We are forced to withdraw troops from the streets, put the army on high alert and close the state border on the west, primarily with Lithuania and Poland,” Lukashenko said while addressing a women’s forum, adding that Belarus’ border with Ukraine also would be strengthened.
But the national Border Guard Service said all border checkpoints remained open, though it said controls and inspections have been strengthened. A spokeswoman for the Polish Border Guard, Agnieszka Golias, said traffic at Poland's border with Belarus was as busy as usual. Lithuanian authorities also reported no changes.
Lukashenko’s main challenger in the election, former English teacher and political novice Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, dismissed Lukashenko's claims as part of his efforts to denigrate protesters and to blame foreign influences for the outpouring of anger toward him and calls for his resignation on the streets of Belarus.
“Lukashenko already has tried to scare us with enemies that don't exist. He has accused peaceful people of being engaged in violence and tried to cast the true patriots as traitors,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement. “But his talk yesterday about closing the borders marks a new level of distancing from reality. It was talk by a weak person about his own imaginary world.”
She urged Belarusians to ignore Lukashenko's bluster, emphasizing that “all our neighbors are our friends.” Seeking to further cement ties with his main ally and sponsor, Moscow, Lukashenko has tried to cast the protests as a Western plot to isolate Russia. This week, Russia has sent 300 paratroopers for joint military drills with Belarusian soldiers near Brest on the border with Poland. On Friday, they practiced freeing hostages in a mock anti-terror operation.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius voiced concern over Lukashenko's statement about beefing up troops on the border. “This is an inadequate response of an inadequate person to the situation,” he told public broadcaster LRT Radio.
The United States and the European Union have criticized the presidential election as neither free nor fair and urged Lukashenko to start talks with the opposition — a call he has rejected. Washington and Brussels have been pondering sanctions against Belarusian officials for alleged vote-rigging and the violent response to protests.
The EU ambassadors in Belarus urged authorities to release all political prisoners, warning in Friday’s statement that “from this day on, each of us will take a copy of the list of political prisoners in Belarus to every meeting with Belarusian officials.”
“We reiterate that a peaceful and sustainable resolution of the current crisis can result only from an inclusive national dialogue held in full observance of the Belarusian people’s fundamental rights and freedoms and in full respect of their demand for a democratic process,” the EU ambassadors said.
During a ferocious protest crackdown in the first few days after the Aug. 9 presidential election, nearly 7,000 people were arrested and hundreds were injured. Belarusian authorities have since changed tactics and tried to squash protests with the selective detentions of demonstrators and the jailing of opposition leaders.
Several top members of the Coordination Council the opposition has created to push for a new election have been jailed and others forced to leave the country. Maxim Znak, a leading member of the council, declared a hunger strike in prison on Friday.
In a new strategy to stem Sunday rallies that drew up to 200,000 people to the streets of Minsk to denounce the government, the Belarusian Prosecutor General's office said it has tracked down parents who took their children to opposition demonstrations.
It said that prosecutors in the capital have served notices to 140 individuals, warning them of their failure to fulfill their parental duties. The office's statement didn't spell out the potential consequences of the warnings.
The United Nations' top human rights body held an urgent debate Friday on the situation in Belarus with U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet pointing at "hundreds of reports of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence and the reported torture of children.”
Belarus’ ambassador, Yury Ambrazevich, staunchly denied what he described as unfounded accusations of sexual violence against protesters or disappearances of people. He tried but failed to prevent Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger, from delivering a video statement in which she called for an international mission to document the human rights abuses in Belarus.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.
Follow AP's coverage of the political unrest in Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/belarus