Belarus claim ‘kidnapped’ opposition leader was arrested at Ukrainian border ‘after she was pushed from a speeding BMW while trying to “illegally” flee the country’
- Maria Kolesnikova was arrested at the Ukrainian border in early hours of Tuesday
- Border police claim she was ‘pushed’ from the BMW as it tried to escape guards
- Kolesnikova’s friends say she was snatched by masked men in Minsk on Monday
Confusion surrounded the arrest of a Belarus opposition leader today after she was detained by border guards while trying to reach Ukraine.
Maria Kolesnikova was arrested at the Aleksandrovka border crossing in the early hours of this morning in what Belarus called an ‘illegal’ attempt to flee the country.
Border police made the extraordinary claim that Kolesnikova was ‘pushed out’ of a speeding BMW as it raced to escape the guards, but two of her opposition allies made it into Ukraine.
The circumstances of the alleged journey to Ukraine were not clear, with Ukrainian border guards denying initial claims that Kolesnikova had entered the country.
Friends of the 38-year-old had been unable to contact her after she was allegedly snatched by masked men who bundled her into a van on Monday, a claim which Belarus denies.
Kolesnikova is part of a female triumvirate challenging the rule of ‘Europe’s last dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko, but was the only one who remained in Belarus after last month’s disputed election led to a crackdown in the ex-Soviet country.
Maria Kolesnikova (pictured) was arrested at the Ukrainian border this morning, state television said a day after she was allegedly kidnapped in Minsk
Border police said that Kolesnikova was arrested at a crossing between Belarus and Ukraine (shown on a map)
Border police told state news agency Belta that Kolesnikova had arrived at the checkpoint with opposition allies Anton Rodnenkov Ivan Kravtsov, members of the Coordination Council aiming to secure a peaceful transfer of power.
‘Rodnenkov, Kravtsov and Kolesnikova passed the customs border control on a BMW car and headed for Ukraine,’ said spokesman Anton Bychkovsky.
‘However, as they saw border guards, the car abruptly picked up speed, which posed a threat to the life of a border guard.
‘Kolesnikova appeared outside the vehicle. In fact, she was pushed out of the vehicle that kept moving towards Ukraine.’
The Ukrainian embassy in Minsk confirmed that Rodnenkov and Kravtsov were able to cross into the country.
Britain and Germany were last night demanding answers on Kolesnikova’s whereabouts after she and the two others went missing on Monday.
‘Lukashenko’s regime must make her safe return their highest priority,’ said UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
His German counterpart Heiko Maas demanded ‘clarity on the whereabouts and the release of all political prisoners in Belarus’.
Kolesnikova’s friends say she was snatched along with a spokesman and executive secretary of the Coordination Council, which is aiming to secure a peaceful transfer of power.
‘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 on Monday evening.
Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya rejected Lukashenko’s claim to have won the August 9 election with 80 per cent of the vote, extending his 26-year rule.
Tikhanovskaya, Kolesnikova and a third woman Veronika Tsepkalo, fronted the campaign against Lukashenko which drew enthusiastic support at rallies.
But the aftermath of the election has degenerated into protests and a crackdown by police which saw 633 people detained on Sunday.
Kolesnikova (right) backed Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (left) who rejected Lukashenko’s claim to have won the August 9 election
The disputed election has led to mass protests in Minsk, pictured here on Sunday with people waving opposition flags
The European Union on Monday led calls for Belarus to immediately release the hundreds of protesters.
‘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.
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.
Tikhanovskaya left the country under pressure from the authorities and was granted refuge by EU member Lithuania.
‘The more they try to scare us, the more people will take to the streets,’ Tikhanovskaya said in a statement.
Lukashenko (pictured in Minsk last week) is facing the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power in the ex-Soviet republic in 1994
Police on Sunday 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.
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.
Kolesnikova, a trained flautist and music teacher, entered politics to run the campaign of another opposition politician, ex-banker Viktor Babaryko, who attempted to stand for president against Lukashenko but was jailed and barred from running.
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