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Belarus claims opposition leader arrested trying to flee to Ukraine

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Embattled leader of Belarus gets a boost from Russian prime minister's visit 06:45

Belarusian authorities claimed Tuesday that one of the country's leading opposition figures had been detained while trying to cross into Ukraine, a day after her allies said she had been bundled into a van by unknown men and whisked away. European nations had demanded that Belarus' government explain the whereabouts of Maria Kolesnikova after her disappearance, along with two other opposition figures, on Monday.

On Tuesday, after officials in Minsk spent hours denying any knowledge of Kolesnikova's whereabouts, a spokesman for Belarus' State Border Committee claimed that she had been detained while attempting to cross overnight with two other members of the opposition's Coordination Council. He said two male members of the Council escaped, but Kolesnikova was arrested.

Quickly the Belarusian government's version of events was challenged by members of the Opposition Council, speaking both on the record and anonymously to Russian media, and by a Ukrainian official.

Kolesnikova and the two other council members, press secretary Anton Rodnenkov and executive secretary Ivan Kravtsov, disappeared on Monday morning. The council said a witness reported seeing Kolesnikova bundled into a minibus early that morning by unknown men. None of the three have been contactable by phone since they disappeared.

Maria Kolesnikova (R) speaks during an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, August 17, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty

Bychkovsky said that Rodnenkov and Kravtsov were able to cross into Ukraine, and the Ukrainian embassy in Minsk confirmed to AFP they were in the country. But Ukraine's Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko called Rodnenkov and Kravtsov's arrival in his country the result of a "forcible expulsion" from Belarus. He said Kolesnikova refused the same treatment and was taken into custody in her home country.

Russia's Interfax news agency, citing anonymous sources close to the Belarusian opposition, also said Kolesnikova had refused to be expelled from Belarus at the border.

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

Another senior member of the opposition Coordination Council, Maksim Znak, said Tuesday that none of the three council members — Kolesnikova, Rodnenkov, nor Kravtsov — had discussed any plans to leave the country.

"There is a lot that is strange in this story, voiced by Belarusian television," Znak said. "None of them had any intentions to leave the country. We spoke [hypothetically], relatively speaking, if it was offered, prison or going abroad, Maria clearly said that she would not go anywhere."

State news agency Belta quoted border officials as saying the three had tried to cross the border in a BMW around 4:00 am Tuesday.

World Data Locator Map, Belarus
Encyclopaedia Britannica/Getty

Bychkovsky, of the Belarusian border authority, told reporters that "Rodnenkov, Kravtsov and Kolesnikova passed customs border control in a BMW car and moved towards Ukraine. However, later, meeting a border guard, the car accelerated sharply, posing a threat to the life of a serviceman of the border service."

"Kolesnikova found herself outside the vehicle. In fact, she was pushed out of the car, which continued to move towards Ukraine," Bychkovsky claimed, offering no explanation for why she might have been forced from the vehicle by her colleagues.

Russian state-run media released security camera video showing the BMW appearing to pass uneventfully through the first checkpoint, but there was no video released of the second incident involving the alleged rush for the border, or Kolesnikova being ejected from the car. 

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 August 9 presidential election with 80 percent of the vote.

Protests keep pressure on Belarus President Lukashenko to resign 02:09

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

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

From left, Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of opposition figure Valery Tsepkalo, who was barred from running for presidency, presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova, Viktor Babaryko's campaign chief, pose during a press conference in Minsk, Belarus, July 17, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty

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.

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