Belarus' Lukashenko steps up efforts to reassert control

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has stepped up efforts to reaffirm his control after 10 days of street protests and strikes that were sparked by disputed elections.

Mr Lukashenko says he has given orders to end the unrest in the capital Minsk.

The move signalled an escalation as EU leaders agreed to impose sanctions at a virtual summit.

European Council President Charles Michel said the bloc does not recognise the result of a contentious election which saw Lukashenko claim 80% of the vote.

"The EU will impose shortly sanctions on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud," he said at the end of an emergency summit of EU leaders.

He said that violence against peaceful protesters was "shocking and unacceptable" and must be stopped.

"We stand by your side in desire to exercise your rights and peaceful, democratic future," Mr Michel told protesters.

Almost 7,000 people were detained and hundreds were injured with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs in the first four days of demonstrations, and at least two protesters died.

The European Commission has said that it will divert 53 million euros (£48m) designated for Belarus away from the government and towards civil society in the wake of protests and the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the bloc's executive arm Ursula von der Leyen said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said election had been neither free nor fair.

Ms Merkel, condemned "the brutal violence against demonstrators as well as the imprisonment and use of violence against thousands of Belarusians" which followed in the wake of the disputed election.

The Belarusian opposition leader earlier urged European leaders not to recognise "fraudulent elections" that extended the president's rule.

In a video statement ahead of Wednesday's summit, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on Europe to support "the awakening of Belarus".

"I call on you not to recognise these fraudulent elections. Mr Lukashenko has lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world," she said.

Ms Tikhanovskaya has formed a "co-ordination council" with plans for "new, fair and democratic presidential elections with international supervision".

About Alexandra Lukashenko

Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus in 1994.In 1996 he persuaded voters to approve a new constitution that gave him sweeping additional powers, including the right to prolong his term in office, to rule by decree, and to appoint one-third of the upper house of parliament.

An authoritarian and unpredictable leader, he resisted economic and political reforms, suppressed dissent in the media and among the people, and led Belarus into isolation from its European neighbours and the international community.

Reelected in 2001, he oversaw the passage in 2004 of a controversial amendment that allowed him to seek a third term. Lukashenko won the 2006 election amid allegations of tampering. Many countries and organisations condemned the election, and the European Union (EU) subsequently barred Lukashenko and a number of his officials from entering any of its member countries.

Lukashenko appeared to be on track for another organised victory in the 2020 presidential election, but his poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the overt nature of his electoral interference—which included the jailing of opposition candidates—sparked the largest wave of demonstrations in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union.