Belarus Leader Accuses Opposition of Plotting a Coup

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- Belarus' authoritarian leader on Monday charged that the opposition was plotting a coup in the runup to last year's presidential election that triggered a monthslong wave of mass protests demanding his resignation.

President Alexander Lukashenko held his annual press conference on the one-year anniversary of the vote that handed him a sixth term in office but was denounced by the opposition and the West as rigged.

In his opening remarks, Lukashenko defended the election and accused the opposition of preparing a coup.

"We back then carried out preparation for the election and the election itself in the conditions of total transparency and democratization of political life," Lukashenko said. "The difference was only that some were preparing for fair election, and others called for bashing the authorities -- for a coup."

Belarus was shaken by months of protests triggered by Lukashenko's re-election, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people. Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a relentless crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, has denounced his opponents as foreign stooges and accused the U.S. and its allies of plotting to overthrow his government.

The authorities have ramped up their crackdown on dissent in recent months, targeting independent journalists and democracy activists with raids and arrests and sometimes going to extremes such as diverting a plane to the capital of Minsk and arresting a dissident aboard.

The pressure on dissents has elicited international outrage, and the United States and European Union have slapped Belarus with sanctions that target top government officials and key sectors of the country's economy.

In response to the sanctions, Lukashenko has said his country will not try to stem a flow of illegal migrants to the EU. Lithuania in recent months has faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants it has blamed on Lukashenko's government.

On Monday, the president also threatened to stop cooperating with the U.S. in the fight against smuggling of radioactive materials if the sanctions pressure continues.

"Who needs some dirty explosives going to the European Union?" Lukashenko said, citing the surge of migrants as an example of Western pressure backfiring. "We're not blackmailing, we're not threatening, we're forced to react," he said.

Last week, Belarus once again drew international attention. At the Tokyo Games, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter accused the country's officials of trying to put her on a plane back to Belarus after she publicly criticized the management of her team at the games. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and instead sought refuge in Poland.

In his first comment on the incident, Lukashenko accused her of being a foreign stooge, saying that "she wouldn't have done it herself if she hadn't been manipulated."

Around the same time, a Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found hanged in Kyiv, with his allies alleging that Belarus' authorities were behind his death.

Lukashenko on Monday brushed off these accusations and demanded Ukraine to investigate Vitaly Shishov's death. "It needs to be figured out. But if you've accused us, (put) facts on the table. Facts on the table!" he said.