Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been sworn in to start a new five-year term as president of Belarus at a ceremony held in the Palace of the Republic in Minsk and broadcast live on national television.
The inauguration took place as European and U.S. officials mull new sanctions over Lukashenka's crackdown on street protests following his December 19 reelection, which the opposition and international monitors say was rigged.
Western governments have urged Belarus to free opposition activists rounded up during and after the mass protest in Minsk, including four presidential candidates who ran against Lukashenka.
Police violently dispersed the December 19 mass protest and detained nearly 700 demonstrators. More than 30 of them face lengthy prison sentences on charges of causing mass disturbances.
In the latest development, "Sovyetskaya Belorusia," the official newspaper of the presidential administration, has accused presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau and his journalist wife of plotting a coup. The report accuses the couple of accepting $20 million from "foreign donors" to oust Lukashenka.
The couple were arrested in the postelection crackdown and are now in jail facing a possible lengthy sentence on a charge of organizing mass unrest.
European lawmakers on January 20 adopted a resolution calling on their governments to slap fresh sanctions on Lukashenka's regime.
EU ministers are scheduled to meet on January 31 to decide whether to impose sanctions, including a travel ban against Lukashenka and other top Belarusian officials, plus a freeze on any financial support from the International Monetary Fund.
Washington is also exploring new sanctions on Minsk.
Lukashenka has ruled the country of 10 million with an iron first since 1994 and was famously described by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush as Europe's "last dictator."
In an angry speech on January 20, Lukashenka said he would reply to any EU sanctions with the "harshest" retaliatory measures.
He also restated his government's claim that Poland and Germany were behind the attempt to stage a revolt against him, an accusation both countries have dismissed as absurd.
written by Claire Bigg, with agency reports