Belarusian law enforcement officers stand guard behind barriers during an opposition rally to protest against police brutality and to reject the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus September 6 2020. Picture: REUTERS
Belarusian law enforcement officers stand guard behind barriers during an opposition rally to protest against police brutality and to reject the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus September 6 2020. Picture: REUTERS

Moscow — Unidentified masked men seized prominent Belarusian protest leader Maria Kolesnikova in central Minsk on Monday morning and drove her off in a minivan, the Belarusian Tut.By media outlet cited a witness as saying.

Kolesnikova, a member of the opposition co-ordination council, is the last of three woman politicians left in Belarus who joined forces before an August 9 presidential election to try to challenge veteran incumbent Alexander Lukashenko.

An outspoken critic of Lukashenko, she played an important role in weeks of mass demonstrations and strikes by protesters who accuse Lukashenko of rigging his re-election. He denies that allegation, and has accused foreign powers of trying to topple him in a revolution.

Three EU diplomats said the EU was preparing to impose economic sanctions on 31 senior Belarus officials, including the interior minister, later this month in response to the election and crackdown.

Facing the deepest crisis of his 26-year rule, Lukashenko retains the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has promised to send in police to support him if needed.

Kolesnikova’s abduction, if confirmed, comes as Belarusian authorities appear to be stepping up their efforts to try to halt the protests and obstruct the work of the opposition’s co-ordination council which they have accused of plotting to overthrow Lukashenko.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people demonstrated across the country demanding Lukashenko step down. Security forces detained 633 protesters, Belarusian authorities said.

Masked men

The Tut.By media outlet quoted witness Anastasia as saying she saw Kolesnikova pushed into a dark-coloured van by masked men in plain clothes in central Minsk.

She said Kolesnikova’s cellphone fell to the ground during the tussle, and one of the masked men took it before the van sped off.

Kolesnikova’s allies said they were checking the report of her detention, and that they could not get in touch with some other members of her team too and were concerned about their safety.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Minsk police as saying they had not detained Kolesnikova.

Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius likened what had happened to Kolesnikova to actions of Stalin-era secret police in the Soviet Union.

“Instead of talking to the people of Belarus, the outgoing leadership is trying cynically [to] eliminate [them] one by one,” he wrote on Twitter.

“The kidnapping ... is a disgrace. Stalinist NKVD methods are being applied in 21st century Europe. She must be released immediately”.

Before the election, Kolesnikova had joined forces with opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who later fled to Lithuania, and with Veronika Tsepkalo, who has since left for Poland.

Another leading activist, Olga Kovalkova, who arrived in Poland on Saturday, said she was told she faced arrest if she stayed in Belarus.

The crisis is hitting the Belarus economy. Central bank figures published on Monday showed the former Soviet republic burned through nearly a sixth of its gold and foreign exchange reserves, or $1.4bn, in August trying to prop up its rouble currency during the wave of unrest. 

Reuters

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