By Arshad Mohammed, Matt Spetalnick and Robin Emmott
WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States, Britain and Canada may impose sanctions on Belarus as early as Friday, four sources told Reuters, and the European Union told President Alexander Lukashenko it did not recognise him as the country's legitimate leader.
Diplomatic pressure on Lukashenko mounted a day after he had himself sworn in for a sixth term at an inauguration ceremony that was kept secret until after it was completed.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that following the "fraudulent" inauguration, British, U.S. and Canadian officials were working on sanctions against those responsible for "serious human rights violations".
The four sources said the measures could come on Friday, though that might slip given the challenge of coordinating between the three countries.
More than 12,000 people have been arrested, and hundreds remain in jail, since Lukashenko was declared the landslide winner of an Aug. 9 presidential election that the opposition denounced as rigged.
Mass protests have left him reliant on his security forces, and backing from his ally Russia, to maintain his 26-year grip on power in the former Soviet republic.
Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said: "The inauguration is as illegitimate as the elections it follows."
The European Union said the abrupt swearing-in on Wednesday went directly against the will of the people.
"The so-called 'inauguration' ... and the new mandate claimed by Aleksander Lukashenko lack any democratic legitimacy," the EU's 27 states said in a statement.
"This 'inauguration' directly contradicts the will of large parts of the Belarusian population, as expressed in numerous, unprecedented and peaceful protests since the elections, and serves to only further deepen the political crisis in Belarus."
The EU, a large financial donor to Belarus, also said it was "reviewing its relations" with the country, meaning the bloc would seek to cut off direct funding to Lukashenko's government, channelling it to aid groups and hospitals instead.
NIGHT OF PROTESTS
Lukashenko brushed off the condemnation.
"We didn't ask anyone to recognise our elections or not recognise them, to recognise the legitimacy of the newly elected president or not," the news site Sputnik Belarus quoted him as saying.
The 66-year-old leader defended the manner of his swearing-in.
"You know about 2,000 people were invited to the inauguration, together with the military. And it is almost impossible to keep it secret," he said.
The ceremony, a major state occasion that would normally be conducted with fanfare, took place without prior warning in an apparent attempt to prevent it being disrupted by protests.
Instead, it drew thousands onto the streets of the capital Minsk on Wednesday evening, where security forces chased down protesters and fired water cannon to disperse crowds.
Police detained 364 people, the Interior Ministry said.
A video showing a taxi driver rescuing a protester and speeding away from baton-wielding riot police went viral on social media.
Detained opposition politician Maria Kolesnikova urged protesters not to give up and mocked the security forces who arrested her, in a letter to her father that was shared by the Tut.By news portal.
"You must tell them not to give up, just keep going! These people who have kidnapped me are all incredibly weak and hysterical. They don't even know how to do their job well," the 38-year-old musician wrote.
Kolesnikova burnished her status as a hero to the protesters by ripping up her passport to avoid forced deportation to Ukraine earlier this month.
(Additional reporting by John Chalmers, Kate Holton, Elizabeth Piper, David Ljunggren, Andrey Makhovsky, Maxim Rodionov and Maria Vasilyeva; writing by Mark Trevelyan, Editing by Angus MacSwan)