The European Union has announced financial sanctions against those involved in electoral fraud in Belarus.
European Council President Charles Michel said the bloc does not recognise the result of a contentious election which saw incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko claim 80% of the vote.
“The EU will impose shortly sanctions on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud,” he said at the end of an emergency summit of EU leaders.
As hundreds more protesters defied a new order from President Lukashenko and gathered on the streets of Minsk for continued demonstrations, Mr Michel said the situation in Belarus is “increasingly concerning”.
He said that violence against peaceful protesters was “shocking and unacceptable” and must be stopped.
“We stand by your side in desire to exercise your rights and peaceful, democratic future,” Mr Michel told protesters.
Mr Lukashenko has instructed his police to clear the streets after a week of rallies against him.
Additionally, the European Commission will reroute 53 million euros (£48m) earmarked for Belarus away from the government and towards civil society in the wake of protests and the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the bloc’s executive arm Ursula von der Leyen said.
She said sanctions on Belarus officials responsible should be adopted as soon as possible, and that the country’s future must be decided by its people.
Almost 7,000 people were detained and hundreds were injured with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs in the first four days of demonstrations, and at least two protesters died.
The EU’s decision comes as the Belarusian central election committee said that Mr Lukashenko would be inaugurated as president for a new term within the next two months, the TASS news agency reported.
Belarus’s long-term leader was declared the winner in the 9 August polls, but the results have been dismissed as fraudulent by the opposition. The UK shares this view.
He is facing the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule amid a wave of mass protests and strikes following his re-election on 9 August, and his opponents want him out for a new election to be held.
On Monday, Mr Lukashenko was quoted as telling workers at a tractor plant: “We held elections already. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections.”
Sky News’ foreign affairs editor Deborah Haynes said: “The European Union is treading a tricky path with its response to the Belarus crisis.
“By rejecting the results of the 9 August presidential election and punishing state brutality against protesters, the bloc is sending a clear message that such action will not be tolerated.
“But EU leaders stopped short of openly backing the main figures who opposed Alexander Lukashenko, instead simply saying that they stand in solidarity with the ‘Belarusian people’.”
Haynes added: “Brussels knows that any move against the government in Minsk will be viewed from next door Russia as external interference, potentially creating an excuse for President Vladimir Putin to intervene in a country it views as a strategically important ally.
“They will hope that Wednesday’s measures are sufficient to make Mr Lukashenko reconsider his position but not so aggressive as to prompt a Russian response.
“Given the incumbent president’s actions so far, this could be wishful thinking.”
The Belarusian opposition leader earlier urged European leaders not to recognise “fraudulent elections” that extended the president’s rule.
In a video statement ahead of Wednesday’s summit, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on Europe to support “the awakening of Belarus”.
“I call on you not to recognise these fraudulent elections. Mr Lukashenko has lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world,” she said.
The 37-year-old former English teacher, who won support of other opposition groups and drew tens of thousands to rally in her support, only got only 10% of the vote, according to election officials.
She then fled the country to be with her children in Lithuania and dismissed the results as falsified before demanding a recount.
Brussels-based researcher into Belarus’ EU foreign policy, Ekaterina Pierson-Lyzhina, said that recent surveys suggest around 60% of Belarus’s people want the country to remain independent and reject any kind of union.