A Belarus opposition leader tore up her passport to foil authorities trying to deport her to Ukraine in the dead of night, it was claimed today.
Maria Kolesnikova was driven to a border crossing in the early hours of this morning but ‘took action’ to prevent her ‘forcible expulsion’, Ukraine’s government said, a day after she was allegedly kidnapped in Minsk.
Ukrainian media said Kolesnikova had torn up her passport to ensure that border guards would deny her entry – while two of her opposition allies entered Ukraine.
Belarus claims that Kolesnikova was arrested at the border, giving a different version of events in which the 38-year-old made 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 Ukrainian government minister Anton Geraschchenko said today that ‘it wasn’t a voluntary trip’ – praising ‘this brave woman’ for preventing her deportation.
Friends of Kolesnikova had been unable to contact her after she was allegedly snatched by masked men who bundled her into a van in Minsk on Monday, a claim which Belarus denies.
Maria Kolesnikova (pictured) foiled an attempt to deport her across the Ukrainian border this morning, Ukraine’s government said
Border police said that Kolesnikova was arrested at a crossing between Belarus and Ukraine (the approximate journey is shown on a map)
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.
Belarus border police claimed to state media that she had arrived at the Aleksandrovka border crossing at 4am with the aim of fleeing the country.
Kolesnikova was travelling with her allies Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, members of the Coordination Council aiming to secure a peaceful transfer of power.
‘Rodnenkov, Kravtsov and Kolesnikova passed the customs border control in a BMW car and headed for Ukraine,’ claimed 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 opposition leader was being held and ‘an investigation is under way to legally assess the situation,’ Bychkovsky said.
However, a different narrative soon emerged from Ukraine, where deputy interior minister Geraschchenko said the opposition leader was transported against her will.
‘It was a violent expulsion from her native country with the aim of compromising the Belarusian opposition,’ he said.
‘Maria Kolesnikova was not able to be removed from Belarus because this brave woman took action to prevent her movement across the border.’
He added: ‘All responsibility for her life and health is personally carried by Alexander Lukashenko.’
An ‘informed source’ gave a similar version of the story to Interfax Ukraine, saying that Kolesnikova had foiled Belarus’s attempt to deport her.
‘When attempting to deport her, she tore her passport and could not be allowed into the territory of Ukraine by border guards,’ the source said.
Ukrainian border guards said that Kolesnikova had not entered the country, refuting initial claims that she had crossed the border, and her current whereabouts are unclear.
But Kiev’s embassy in Minsk confirmed that Rodnenkov and Kravtsov had reached Ukraine, where they are ‘undergoing the necessary border control measures’.
A fellow ex-Soviet country, Ukraine has called for new elections in Belarus and joined the European Union in saying that last month’s poll was not free or fair.
Russia, which backs Lukashenko, has alleged that 200 Ukrainian extremists were trying to foment trouble in Belarus, but Kiev denies this.
The Kremlin was today awaiting clarification on what happened to Kolesnikova, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman told Russian media.
Kolesnikova (right) backed Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (left) who rejected Lukashenko’s claim to have won the August 9 election
Britain and Germany were last night demanding answers on Kolesnikova’s whereabouts after she and the two others went missing in Minsk.
‘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.
‘We still don’t know where Maria is and what is happening to her,’ said lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the Council, which is facing a criminal probe that has seen some its members arrested and called for questioning.
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.
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.
Speaking today, she told a Council of Europe committee that Lukashenko’s regime was ‘illegitimate’.
‘Lukashenko does not have any legitimacy as the president of our country. He does not represent Belarus anymore,’ she said from Vilnius.
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.