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Belarus president's long rule is crumbling, protest leader says

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The last of three opposition leaders still in Belarus after trying to unseat Alexander Lukashenko in a disputed election called on the West not to recognise him as president and said his 26-year rule was crumbling.

Maria Kolesnikova, who allied in the election with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said a spreading industrial strike after days of protests over alleged rigging of the election meant it was just a matter of time until Lukashenko left power.

“This is obviously one of the most important moments and turning points. Factory workers have been the pillar of the Lukashenko regime for the last 26 years,” she told Reuters by video call from Minsk.

“It could happen today or in one month’s time,” she said of Lukashenko’s exit. “This has never happened in our history before...We don’t know how the elite will react.”

Tens of thousands of people, joined by workers from state-owned industrial plants, took to the streets for a sixth consecutive day on Friday, mounting the most serious political challenge to Lukashenko’s tight grip on power.

“It’s crumbling in front of our very eyes,” she said.

“The next step is (the reaction) of the political elite and security officials. As soon as they join the people and stop carrying out criminal orders, it will be clear the regime has fallen,” Kolesnikova said.

On Friday, Tsikhanouskaya called for a vote recount from self-imposed exile in Lithuania and pressed for an investigation into allegations of election rigging.

“It’s absolutely obvious the elections were falsified. They musn’t recognise the results of the elections that were published today,” she said, when asked how she wanted the West to respond.

Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher, ran for president after her husband was jailed and barred from the ballot. Her supporters say she won, but official election results gave her 10% of the vote and said Lukashenko won by a landslide.

Tsikhanouskaya joined forces with the wife of another man barred from the vote and with Kolesnikova, the campaign manager for a banker named Viktor Babariko who was arrested on charges his supporters said were trumped up.

Kolesnikova said she backed Tsikhanouskaya’s programme. She called for the immediate release of people she described as political prisoners and said new elections should be held.

She said some security officials were beginning to back the protesters, and that she hoped others would follow suit soon.

“The sooner they do that, the more peaceful the transfer of power will be and the faster Lukashenko will leave for his pension.”

Editing by Angus MacSwan