INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Monday urged France's president to mediate in the political crisis in Belarus and called for EU sanctions against businesses that support President Alexander Lukashenko's government.
Tikhanovskaya told AFP that French President Emmanuel Macron could be "one of the mediators" and could involve his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a dialogue between government and opposition.
"The protests are not going to stop," she said in an interview in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius where she fled after running against Lukashenko in an election on August 9.
"People will not accept the regime under which they have lived all these years. They will fight more and more against the system."
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets on Sunday in the 50th day of unprecedented protests against Lukashenko's 26-year rule which have been met with a violent crackdown.
'No more blood'
Tikhanovskaya, 38, said she had requested a meeting with Macron during his two-day visit to Lithuania, which starts later on Monday.
The French president would be her most high-profile meeting so far since the election and the protests which she has helped inspire.
She has previously met with leaders in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania, which have taken a lead in European diplomacy on Belarus, and with EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
Tikhanovskaya said the French leader was known as a mediator in international crises and voiced hope that he could "influence" Putin.
The Russian leader is Lukashenko's main ally and has supported him financially, while also calling for stronger integration with Russia and a process of constitutional reform in Belarus.
"Now is the moment when Belarus needs help in starting dialogue," Tikhanovskaya said, adding that there should be "no more blood" in Belarus.
"Of course we would prefer to solve this problem by ourselves but we see that all these atrocities are continuing and the Belarusian people are suffering," Tikhanovskaya said.
At a summit in Brussels next week, EU leaders are set to debate personal sanctions against Lukashenko and other high-profile figures seen as responsible for a violent crackdown.
Tikhanovskaya said the bloc could go further and also adopt "sanctions against firms, individual businessmen who support Lukashenko's regime".
But she emphasised that the EU should stop short of general economic sanctions as "ordinary people will suffer most" from them.
She also stressed that EU countries should ignore any deals being made by Lukashenko since "they can be reviewed in the future because now he is not the voice of the Belarusian people."
'I cannot stop'
Tikhanovskaya only joined the political fray after her husband Sergei - a popular blogger - was barred from registering as a presidential candidate and was arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
Tikhanovskaya fled Belarus in the days after the presidential election after claiming victory and accusing Lukashenko of rigging the vote.
She was reunited with her children but her husband is still in prison and is considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
Tikhanovskaya said she was not yet ready to talk about the circumstances in which she fled from Belarus but her supporters said she came under intense pressure that left her little choice.
"All I can say is that I went to the Central Electoral Commission at around 3:00 pm and at around 3:00 am I crossed the border into Lithuania. For the moment I cannot give any more detail than that... but it's clear that my departure was not voluntary," she told AFP.
Asked if she had thought about giving up the political fight to focus on freeing her husband and looking after her family, she said: "I cannot stop what I'm doing and give up. There are too many innocent people in prison.
"Only our victory will get these people out of prison - that's what motivates me."