Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been sworn in for a sixth term at a secret ceremony held with no prior announcement, the Belta state news agency reported Wednesday.
Lukashenko has faced massive demonstrations against his rule in Minsk and other cities since claiming victory in disputed elections on August 9, and has made only rare appearances in public view.
“Alexander Lukashenko has taken office as President of Belarus. The inauguration ceremony is taking place in these minutes in the Palace of Independence,” the news agency reported.
Earlier independent news agencies reported that streets were closed as Lukashenko’s motorcade raced through the capital Minsk, prompting speculation that the inauguration was due to take place, while there was no official confirmation.
Lukashenko’s official website did not make any announcement and the ceremony was not shown live on state television, apparently to avoid protesters gathering.
The 66-year-old leader, in power since 1994, viewed one protest rally from his helicopter, describing the demonstrators as “rats,” and later disembarked in a bullet-proof vest, carrying a Kalashnikov.
He has sought backing from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has promised him law enforcement backup if needed, as well as a $1.5 billion loan.
His main opposition rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, claimed she won the election but has taken shelter in Lithuania, while Lukashenko has jailed or driven out other key opposition figures.
European Union foreign ministers on Monday failed to agree sanctions over the political crisis, despite a plea for support from Tikhanovskaya.
Cyprus, which has good relations with Russia, has vetoed proposed EU sanctions.