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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
AP/Press Association Images Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus's opposition leaders, gestures during a rally in Minsk, Belarus, on 30 August.

Belarus opposition figure who went missing is detained at Ukraine border

Maria Kolesnikova was detained while trying to cross overnight into Ukraine.

ONE OF BELARUS’ leading opposition figures Maria Kolesnikova has been detained while trying to cross into Ukraine, border officials said today.

Kolesnikova was detained while trying to cross overnight with two other members of the opposition’s Coordination Council who were able to pass through to Ukraine, Anton Bychkovsky, a spokesman of the State Border Committee, told AFP.

She and the two other council members, press secretary Anton Rodnenkov and executive secretary Ivan Kravtsov, disappeared yesterday.

Bychkovsky said Rodnenkov and Kravtsov were able to cross into Ukraine, and the Ukrainian embassy in Minsk confirmed to AFP they were in the country.

Kolesnikova was being held and “an investigation is under way to legally assess the situation”, Bychkovsky said.

State news agency Belta quoted border officials as saying the three had tried to cross the border in a BMW car at around 4am today.

The Coordination Council was set up to ensure a peaceful transfer of power after President Alexander Lukashenko’s main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya rejected his claim to have won an 9 August presidential election with 80% of the vote.

The disputed election has sparked widespread protests and a harsh police crackdown that has seen several thousand people arrested.

Germany and Britain yesterday demanded answers after Kolesnikova went missing and allies said she had been snatched off the streets by unidentified men.

Kolesnikova (38) is the only one of the trio of women who fronted Tikhanovskaya’s campaign to remain in Belarus.

Tikhanovskaya left the country under pressure from the authorities and was granted refuge in EU member state Lithuania, while her other campaign partner, Veronika Tsepkalo, is now in Ukraine.

Mass arrests

The European Union yesterday led calls for Belarus to immediately release the more than 600 people arrested this week for protesting against the election that extended Alexander Lukashenko’s 26 years in power.

The interior ministry said 633 people were detained on Sunday for illegal mass gatherings, one of the largest wave of arrests since the early days of the demonstrations.

“The EU expects the Belarusian authorities to ensure the immediate release of all detained on political grounds before and after the falsified 9 August presidential elections,” its diplomatic head Josep Borrell said.

“The EU will impose sanctions on individuals responsible for violence, repression and falsification of election results,” he added.

Voicing concern over the fate of Kolesnikova, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas yesterday demanded “clarity on the whereabouts and the release of all political prisoners in Belarus.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab added: “Seriously concerned for the welfare of Maria Kolesnikova in #Belarus. Lukashenko’s regime must make her safe return their highest priority. The regime must cease brutalising protestors, release political prisoners and begin dialogue with the opposition.”

Canada’s Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called for the release of people detained, including opposition members and journalists.

“The most recent arbitrary arrests of leading opposition voices and acts of repression are unacceptable,” he said.

‘Don’t know where Maria is’ 

“The more they try to scare us, the more people will take to the streets,” Tikhanovskaya said in a statement.

The disputed election has sparked demonstrations that have seen tens of thousands take to the streets of the ex-Soviet country of 9.5 million on Russia’s western borders, in an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko.

An AFP journalist said the crowd of demonstrators waving the opposition’s red-and-white flag on Sunday appeared to be as large or larger than on the previous three Sundays, when more than 100,000 people rallied in the streets of Minsk.

But police also appeared to be stepping up a campaign to quash the demonstrations, deploying troops, water cannon and armoured vehicles.

Local media reported hooded men in civilian clothes with batons chased and beat demonstrators.

Kolesnikova’s office said witnesses described her being snatched off the street in the capital Minsk yesterday morning by unidentified men in black who bundled her into a minibus marked ‘Communications’.

“We still don’t know where Maria is and what is happening to her,” said lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the Coordination Council, in a video blog yesterday evening.

The Coordination Council yesterday said Rodnenkov and Kravtsov had also disappeared, while police said they had no information on detentions.

Belarusian authorities had already detained several members of the Coordination Council and others have left the country under official pressure. One, Olga Kovalkova, said on Saturday she was in Poland after security services threatened her and took her to the border.

Kolesnikova and other members including Nobel Literature Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich have faced questioning in a probe over an alleged bid to seize power.

© AFP 2020

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