UPDATE 3-Longtime Belarus leader set for landslide election win amid protests
* Veteran president set to win sixth term
* But could face new protests
* More than 1,300 detained in pre-election crackdown
* President dismissed COVID-19 fears as a "psychosis" (Recasts, adds details)
MINSK, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was on course for another landslide election victory on Sunday while struggling to contain street protests that pose the biggest challenge in years to the man who has ruled for a quarter of a century.
The 65-year-old Lukashenko has battled a wave of anger over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and his human rights record.
State-approved exit polls showed Lukashenko winning 79.7% of the vote while his main opponent Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to lead rallies against him, received 6.8%.
Tikhanouskaya entered the race after her husband, an anti-government blogger who intended to run, was jailed.
Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus since 1995 and Lukashenko has warned protesters against taking to the streets after the vote.
Military vehicles, soldiers and police patrolled the capital Minsk in apparent readiness for a new crackdown. Social media networks experienced disruption.
A harsh response to new protests could hurt Lukashenko's attempts to mend fences with the West amid fraying ties with traditional ally Russia, which has tried to press Belarus into closer economic and political union.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled since 1994 in an authoritarian fashion.
Tikhanouskaya's rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and on Sunday she arrived at a polling station with hundreds of supporters chanting her name.
She expressed hope for a free election.
Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have been detained in the crackdown, including independent election observers and members of Tikhanouskaya's campaign team.
After casting his vote, Lukashenko denied imposing repressive measures as "fake news or far-fetched accusations" and said he did not regard Tikhanouskaya's camp as a threat.
"They are not worth enough to carry out any repression against them," he said.
'POWER AT ANY COST'
Long queues of voters formed outside some polling stations in Minsk and also outside the Belarusian embassies in Moscow and Kyiv for people casting their ballot abroad.
"It is unbearable to have him in power for so many years. The man should understand himself that he must just leave," said Yuri Kanifatov in Moscow, who voted against Lukashenko.
Portraying himself as a guarantor of stability but criticized by the West as dictatorial, Lukashenko says the opposition protesters are in cahoots with foreign backers to destabilize the country.
"Lukashenko a priori made it clear that he intends to retain his power at any cost. The question remains what the price will be," said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.
Wedded to a Soviet-style economic model, Lukashenko has struggled to raise incomes and living standards in recent years. He also faced anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which he dismissed as a "psychosis" while suggesting drinking vodka and playing ice hockey as remedies.
Ignoring jibes about a woman's fitness to run for office, Tikhanouskaya launched her campaign with the support of the wives of two other candidates, Viktor Babariko, who was jailed, and Valery Tsepkalo, who had fled abroad fearing arrest. (Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
© Copyright Reuters Ltd. All rights reserved. The information contained in this news report may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of Reuters Ltd.