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Belarus opposition leader flees abroad with two sons ahead of election

MINSK, July 24 (Reuters) - An opposition candidate who tried to stand against Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko in next month’s presidential election has fled to Russia with his two sons, fearing they could be taken away, his campaign said on Friday.

Valery Tsepkalo, the country’s former ambassador to Washington and later the founder of an office park for technology companies, worried that the authorities had started proceedings to deprive him of his parental rights.

Lukashenko has jailed two of his main election rivals and detained hundreds of protesters in a crackdown on dissent against his 26-year rule that has drawn Western criticism.

Tsepkalo’s campaign said officials from the prosecutor’s office had come to the boys’ school asking for written statements that his family were not taking good enough care of the children.

“We were left with no choice,” Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika, who stayed behind to campaign against Lukashenko, told a crowd of hundreds of people at a rally.

“I was called by concerned people and they said: ‘We do not want to sign these papers, but they force us (to sign), they collect something bad against you and the next step is to deprive you of parental rights, that you are a bad mother, do not take care of the children’.”

A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office declined comment. Tsepkalo’s camp has not disclosed the age of the children.

Tsepkalo’s move abroad comes days after another opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, moved her two children to an undisclosed location in the European Union. She received anonymous threats of her children being taken away.

Veronika has joined forces with Tikhanouskaya and a third woman representing another candidate, now in prison, to campaign jointly against Lukashenko.

Tsepkalo was barred from standing after the central election commission voided some of the signatures he needed to collect to become a candidate.

Tikhanouskaya launched her campaign after her husband, a popular blogger who planned to run against the president, was arrested in May.

Protests in support of opposition candidates are the biggest challenge in years to Lukashenko, amid anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and grievances over the economy and human rights. (Editing by Matthias Williams and Angus MacSwan)

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