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'We're worried' - Irish family fear for Belarus opposition leader who came here as teenager

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The scenes in Belarus as protesters took to streets in anger at election results

The scenes in Belarus as protesters took to streets in anger at election results

AP

The scenes in Belarus as protesters took to streets in anger at election results

A Tipperary man who hosted Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya as a child in his home has spoken of his fears for her safety.

Former English teacher turned presidential candidate Ms Tikhanouskaya spent much of her teenage years in Roscrea, as part of a Chernobyl charity respite programme.

Harry Deane, a co-founder of the Chernobyl Lifeline Project, fears the mother-of-two is in danger amid the worsening political crisis following the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko.

"We are very worried about her now. I fear she is in danger and the days ahead are most uncertain."

Sham

Yesterday, Ms Tikhanouskaya (37) refused to recognise official election results which awarded Lukashenko a landslide victory.

Ms Tikhanouskaya dismissed the official results as a sham and vowed to dispute them. The opposition is planning new protests in the capital, Minsk, and other cities.

The brutal police crackdown drew harsh criticism from European capitals and is likely to complicate Mr Lukashenko's efforts to mend ties with the west amid tensions with his main ally and sponsor, Russia.

Telling reporters she believed the election was rigged, Ms Tikhanouskaya said she considered herself the election winner and demanded authorities transfer power to the opposition.

"Yesterday the voters made their choice, but the authorities did not hear us, they have broken with the people," she said.

Ms Tikhanouskaya rose from obscurity in recent months to become the main challenger to the Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1996.

She decided to stand for election following the jailing of her husband, a political blogger, who spoke out against the regime.

Harry Deane, who remains in close contact with Svetlana, remembers her as "a lovely kid" who was "full of joy".

The Deanes were approached by Svetlana's teacher in Belarus who felt she needed respite as her family lived in impoverished circumstances.

"She first came at age 12 and then came seven or eight times after that.

She would stay maybe three months during the summer and a month during the winter.

"Her English was so good we kept her on as an interpreter and later we got her some work locally in a factory.

"She was very happy as it enabled her to pay for her education and clothing. We became very close to her. She really was a lovely kid and very easy to get on with. She was so intelligent and picked up the language so fast."

Together with a friend, Mr Deane set up the charity Chernobyl Lifeline Ireland.

"We had families all over Ireland including the family of our ex-Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who would host children every year," Henry said.

"It was a good charity. We operated differently from others in that we brought in groups of children in the months of June, July and August, and we brought them back.

"Svetlana was one of the children that came back. My daughter Mary and son David and my wife were very close to her.

"When she got married her first child, a little boy was born profoundly deaf. And we were able to help, and the little boy got a cochlear implant to help him hear."

Afraid

Even at a young age, Mr Deane remembers Tikhanouskaya had a "love of freedom and fair play."

"Most of the children that did come; they wouldn't speak about the political situation in Belarus. They were afraid. She wasn't though; she would give out about it," Henry said.

"We are very worried about her now. This is going to continue. Svetlana freely admits she is not interested in being president of the country.

"All she wants is to release the political prisoner and to get a fair and honest general election - and let the people have their choice."