KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A leading opposition activist in Belarus was held on the border with Ukraine on Tuesday after she resisted an attempt by authorities to deport her as part of government efforts to end a month of protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with the longtime leader on a transition of power, had been detained Monday in the capital of Minsk along with two other council members.
They were driven early Tuesday to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine. When they arrived in a no-man’s land between the countries, Kolesnikova ripped her passport into small pieces to make it impossible for the authorities to expel her. She remained in custody on the Belarusian side of the border after the incident.
Two other council members who crossed into Ukraine, Ivan Kravtsov and Anton Rodnenkov, described Kolesnikova’s action with open admiration.
“She was shouting that she won’t go anywhere,” Rodnenkov said at a news conference in Kyiv. “Sitting in the car, she saw her passport on a front seat and tore it into many small fragments, crumpled them and threw them out of the window. After that, she opened the back door and walked back to the Belarusian border.”
He said that “Maria is in great shape, full of energy and spirits, as always.”
Anton Bychkovsky, spokesman for Belarus’ Border Guard Committee, confirmed she is in the custody of Belarusian authorities but refused to give any details of what happened on the border.
Belarus has used similar tactics to force other opposition figures to leave the country, seeking to end a month of demonstrations that followed the reelection of Lukashenko in a vote that protesters see as rigged. Lukashenko has ruled the country for 26 years, relentlessly stifling dissent and keeping most of the economy in state hands.
The 66-year-old former state farm director has rejected criticism from the United States and the European Union, which said the Aug. 9 election was neither free nor fair and shrugged off their demands to open a dialogue with the opposition.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement state the U.S. and its allies are considering additional sanctions targeted at Belarus, and he expressed concern about the attempt expulsion of Kalesnikava.
“We commend the courage of Ms. Kalesnikava and of the Belarusian people in peacefully asserting their right to pick their leaders in free and fair elections in the face of unjustified violence and repression by the Belarusian authorities, which included brazen beatings of peaceful marchers in broad daylight and hundreds of detentions September 6, as well as increasing reports of abductions,” Pompeo said.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger to Lukashenko, left for Lithuania a day after the election under pressure from authorities.
Addressing the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly on Tuesday, Tsikhanuskaya called for international sanctions against Lukashenko and other government officials.
“We need international pressure on this regime, on this one individual, desperately clinging onto power,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya stated that Lukashenko doesn’t have any legitimacy after stealing the vote, warning other countries against deals with the Belarusian government.
“He does not represent Belarus anymore,” she said.
In separate comments about the attempt to expel Kolesnikova, Tsikhanouskaya praised her as a “real hero,” and said that “such actions are incapable of breaking the will of the people or their desire to change their country’s future.”
Kolesnikova, a 38-year-old flute player who led a popular arts center, entered politics just before the election. She led the campaign headquarters of a top potential challenger to Lukashenko, and when he was barred from running and jailed on charges widely seen as political, she joined Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign.
Another associate of Tsikhanouskaya, Antonina Konovalova, disappeared Tuesday after a court fined her for taking part in a weekend protest.
As evening fell, police dispersed several hundred demonstrators rallying in Minsk in solidarity with Kolesnikova and detained at least 45 protesters, according to the Viasna human rights center.
U.N. Secretary‑General Antonio Guterres expressed “very serious concern” at “the repeated use of force against peaceful protesters, as well as reported pressures on opposition civil society activists,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The U.N. chief’s message is that “the Belarusian people should be able to exercise their political and constitutional rights peacefully in a democratic environment,” the spokesman said, and “the current crisis that we’re seeing in Belarus needs to be resolved through an inclusive dialogue amongst the Belarusian people.”
After a brutal crackdown on protesters by police in the initial days after the vote that stoked international outrage and swelled the ranks of protesters, authorities in Belarus have switched to threats and selective arrests of activists and demonstrators.
Belarusian prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into members of the Coordination Council, accusing them of undermining national security by calling for a transition of power. Several council members were arrested and others were called for questioning.
Last week, Pavel Latushko, a former minister of culture and ambassador to France who joined the opposition council, traveled to Poland after facing threats and being questioned. His departure came a day after Lukashenko warned that Latushko had crossed a “red line” and would face prosecution.
On Saturday, Tsikhanouskaya associate Olga Kovalkova also moved to Poland after the authorities threatened to jail her for a long time if she refused to leave the country.
Kovalkova said agents of the Belarusian State Security Committee, or KGB, put her into a car, where she was told to lie on the floor, unaware where they were taking her. She was dropped off in no-man’s land between the Belarus and Poland border, and Polish border guards asked a bus driver headed for Poland to take her on board.
The French Foreign Ministry issued a strong condemnation “of arbitrary arrests and the practice of forced exiles of several members of the Coordination Council, as well as of numerous demonstrators in recent days.”
“We call on Belarus authorities to end without delay these actions, to free those arbitrarily detained,” and open a national dialogue, the ministry said.
Despite the pressure on opposition activists, daily protests have continued and crowds have swelled on the weekends. An estimated 100,000 attended a rally Sunday, despite heavy rain.
Speaking in an interview with Russian journalists, Lukashenko said it’s “tragic” for him to face massive protests, but insisted that he has retained the support of most of the country.
“I must protect what has been built with our hands, protect the people who have built it, and they are an overwhelming majority,” he said.
Amid Western criticism, Lukashenko has relied on support from Moscow, his main sponsor and ally. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he stands ready to send police to Belarus on Lukashenko’s request if rallies turn violent but there is no need for that yet.
Lukashenko blamed the U.S. for instigating the protests and warned Russia that it could face similar demonstrations in the future.
“If Belarus collapses today, Russia will come next,” he said.
Observers say Lukashenko hopes to stem the protests with selective repressions against the opposition leaders and soothe public anger with vague talk about constitutional reform and a new election at an unspecified date. The Kremlin has endorsed his promise of such a reform.
“The authorities’ scenario is clear — push all the leaders out of the country and step up repressions against demonstrators while imitating a dialogue on a constitutional reform under the patronage of the Kremlin,” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based analyst. “Lukashenko hopes that the rallies of 100,000 will fizzle after the expulsion of opposition leaders, but so far it has had an opposite effect, helping fuel more protests.”
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Elaine Ganley in Paris and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.
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