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Belarus opposition stands united, key figure says amid strategy rift

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WARSAW (Reuters) - The Belarusian opposition remain united in wanting to hold new elections and stop human rights abuses, a member of an opposition council said on Thursday, after a rare public disagreement about how to unseat President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko faces the biggest challenge of his 26-year rule since claiming victory in an election last month that opponents say was rigged. Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and shows no sign of backing down despite the threat of Western sanctions.

This week, election challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya criticized the strategy of another opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova and the team of jailed candidate Viktor Babariko to bring constitutional reform, saying it was a distraction from the goal of removing Lukashenko and holding new elections.

“When it comes to constitutional changes, this is just one initiative of the coordination council. But what unites us, new elections, is certain,” Pavel Latushko, a former Belarusian minister and a leading member of the opposition council, told Reuters when asked about the potential rift.

“This social movement, this social platform that was created in Belarus has two main goals. The first - to end human rights abuses and to free all those who were detained for political reasons. And secondly, to accept that the election results were falsified and that new presidential elections should be held in Belarus. Here, we have absolute agreement.”

Thousands of people were detained during protests after the election. U.N. human rights investigators said on Tuesday they had received reports of hundreds of cases of torture, beatings and mistreatment. The government denies abusing detainees.

Latushko’s comments were made during a visit to Warsaw, which will be followed by a trip to Lithuania on Friday. He told Reuters he would be visiting other European capitals.

Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Kacper Pempel; Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko; Editing by Alison Williams