Vilnius-Belarus opposition challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya voiced defiance after President Alexander Lukashenko’s government opened a criminal probe into attempts to “seize power”.

In her first public comments since fleeing to Lithuania, Tikhanovskaya said Belarusians would “never accept the current leadership again” after a crackdown on mass protests following a disputed August 9 election. “They can never forgive and forget all the violence that our citizens have suffered,” she said.

Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who only put forward her candidacy when her blogger husband was arrested ahead of the vote, also told reporters she loved her homeland and planned to return “when I feel safe there”.

“It should be clear to the president that there is a need for change. I hope that good sense prevails and the people will be heard and there will be new elections,” she said, declining to comment on whether she would be a candidate in any fresh vote. A nervous-looking Tikhanovskaya also refused to answer questions about her own safety or about what compelled her to leave Belarus in the aftermath of the election.

“As for threats, you know I don’t think I would like to discuss this question now,” she said in English. “Every person in our country feels fear and is scared now, but it’s our mission to step over all our fears and move further.” Lukashenko claimed a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote according to the official election result.

But the Belarus strongman’s campaign helped to inspire unprecedented mass protests against his 26-year rule in the former Soviet republic. On Friday thousands protested again in Minsk, forming a human chain between a memorial to Stalinist repression and the Okrestina jail where those arrested are being held and have complained of abuse. The demonstrators carried flags, flowers and pictures of injured protesters. Security forces were present but did not attempt to disperse the crowds. One of those marching through the capital described Lukashenko as “the enemy of the people”.

The EU has rejected Lukashenko’s re-election and is planning sanctions against those it holds responsible for violence against protesters. Belarus’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, who had conceded on Thursday that “change is needed” in the country, wrote to his European counterparts urging them not to take the sanctions route.

“We have a difficult situation now, but which country has not gone through painful stages of national development,” Makei said in comments released by his office. He added that the government could not leave unanswered such “unfriendly actions detrimental to the sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus”.

Lukashenko himself said Friday that he would resolve the political crisis “in the coming days”. He also accused the United States of “directing” the anti-government protesters in order to create a buffer zone with Belarus, the three Baltic states and Ukraine between Russia. Asked about Russian support for Lukashenko, Tikhanovskaya said: “I call on all countries of the world to respect the sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus.” “We don’t want to live in fear and falsehoods anymore,” she said, calling for striking workers to liaise with a Coordination Council she set up to organise pro-democracy protests. “The creation of the Coordination Council is aimed at negotiating a peaceful handover of power.” Belarus on Thursday opened a criminal probe into the Coordination Council, saying it was an unconstitutional attempt to topple Lukashenko.

Lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the council, was cheered as he arrived for questioning at the Minsk offices of the investigative committee, supporters chanting: “One for all, all for one!” He also brought a formal complaint to the supreme court calling for the election results to be annulled, according to Tikhanovskaya spokeswoman Anna Krasoulina.  The EU on Friday demanded that Belarus halt the investigation, accusing the government of “intimidation”. 

“The Coordination Council, which consists of representatives of different parts of Belarusian society, reached out to the authorities for a dialogue and the authorities answered with the opening of a criminal case,” EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said in a statement.

“In doing so, the Belarusian state authorities have once again reverted to intimidation based on political grounds,” she said. The United Nations on Friday said it was “seriously concerned” about more than 100 people still being detained in Belarus in connection with the protests, even though several thousand more have been released.

“We call on the authorities in Belarus to immediately release all those who have been unlawfully or arbitrarily detained,” said Elizabeth Throssel, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office.