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Belarus protest leader 'detained at Ukraine border'

September 8, 2020

The opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova is reportedly being held in Belarus after resisting a forced deportation to Ukraine. Local media have reported that she tore up her passport at the border.

Opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova stands in front of riot police
Image: picture-alliance/AA/M. Serebryakova

The opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova has been detained in Belarus after resisting a forced deportation to Ukraine, according to officials in Kyiv.

Kolesnikova disappeared in Minsk on Monday after she was seen being bundled into a minibus.

Two of her aides were also seized, the opposition Coordination Council said on Tuesday. They were press secretary Anton Rodnenkov and executive secretary Ivan Kravtsov.

Early Tuesday, the trio were driven to the Ukrainian border where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine. Her aides went to Ukraine, but Kolesnikova remained in the custody of Belarusian authorities. 

Kolesnikova tore up her passport at the border so that Ukrainian border officials would not be able to let her through, her allies said.

"It was clear that she was being taken by force, she was resisting. She was pushed into the back seat [of the car], she yelled that she wasn't going anywhere," Rodnenkov told a press conference in Kyiv after he and Kravtsov crossed into Ukraine.

"She tore up her passport," he said, adding that she then exited the car through a window and walked back to the Belarusian border.

"What they were interested in was getting Maria Kolesnikova outside the country. They said this was necessary to de-escalate the situation in Belarus," said Kravtsov.

Anton Bychkovsky, spokesman for Belarus' Border Guard Committee, as well as Kolesnikova's team, have confirmed that she is still in Belarus. 

Read moreBelarus opposition leader: This freedom 'can't be broken with police batons' 

Kolesnikova 'took actions' to prevent forced departure

Ukrainian officials have also confirmed that Kravtsov and Rodnenkov had crossed the border, and that Kolesnikova had resisted. Ukraine's Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko said on Facebook that Kolesnikova had successfully prevented a "forcible expulsion from her native country."

"This was not a voluntary departure," Gerashchenko wrote.

He also said Kolesnikova "took actions" to prevent her departure from Belarus.

Read more: Under threat from authorities, Belarusians go into exile

"Maria Kolesnikova was not able to be deported from Belarus as this brave woman took steps to prevent herself from being moved across the border. She remained on the territory of the republic of Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko is personally responsible for her life and health," said Gerashchenko, referring to the Belarusian president.

Who are the opposition figures?

Kolesnikova is a campaign partner of opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against President Lukashenko in the August 9 presidential election.

Protesters have disputed the official election results that saw Lukashenko claim a sixth term in office with 80% of the vote. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the last month, with tens of thousands marching against the president once again on Sunday.

Authorities arrested more than 600 people over the weekend as anti-government marches took place protests across the country.

EU demands release of detained protesters

On Monday, the European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on authorities in Belarus to release all opposition figures and protesters.

He warned that the EU would impose sanctions on "individuals responsible for violence, repression and falsification of election results."

"It is clear that the state authorities in Belarus continue to intimidate or allow intimidation of its citizens in an increasingly lawless way and crudely violate both their own domestic laws and international obligations," Borrell said.

EU sanctions are expected to be in place by mid-September. They will include travel bans and asset freezes.

Read more: Belarus' Soviet-era economy still propped up by Moscow

Protesters, human rights activists and observers have accused Belarusian riot police of brutally suppressing peaceful marches in the former Soviet republic. The government has denied those claims, defending its security forces.

"They talk about the cruelty of Belarusian police, and I would like to say this: there are no police anywhere in the world that are more humane [and] moderate," Interior Minister Yuri Karayev told state television on Monday.

This is an update of an earlier version published after initial reports suggested Kolesnikova had crossed into Ukraine.

jf, lc, jsi/dr (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)