Belarus protests: Kolesnikova resists expulsion on Ukraine border – BBC News

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image captionMaria Kolesnikova told BBC Russian last month that “to understand exactly what’s going on, you really have to be here”

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.css-14iz86j-BoldText{font-weight:bold;}A day after a Belarus opposition leader was seen being bundled into a van by masked men, she has been involved in dramatic scenes at the border.

Belarus says Maria Kolesnikova was detained while trying to cross into Ukraine in the early hours of Tuesday.

But Ukraine says Belarusian officials tried to expel her, amid reports that she tore up her passport to stop them.

She is one of three women who joined forces to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in August’s election.

Mass protests erupted after election authorities awarded Mr Lukashenko victory amid allegations of vote-rigging. The main opposition figure, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, says she won 60-70% of the vote, where voters were properly counted.

The latest events on the border with Ukraine come after a fourth weekend of anti-government demonstrations. Authorities said more than 600 people were arrested on Sunday. .css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link{color:#3F3F42;}.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited{color:#696969;}.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited{font-weight:bolder;border-bottom:1px solid #BABABA;-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link:hover,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited:hover,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link:focus,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited:focus{border-bottom-color:currentcolor;border-bottom-width:2px;color:#B80000;}@supports (text-underline-offset:0.25em){.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited{border-bottom:none;-webkit-text-decoration:underline #BABABA;text-decoration:underline #BABABA;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-skip-ink:none;text-decoration-skip-ink:none;text-underline-offset:0.25em;}.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link:hover,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited:hover,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link:focus,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited:focus{-webkit-text-decoration-color:currentcolor;text-decoration-color:currentcolor;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:2px;text-decoration-thickness:2px;color:#B80000;}}The EU has demanded the release of all political prisoners and says it is planning to impose sanctions.
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Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled his country since 1994, admitted on Tuesday that perhaps he had remained in power too long: “Yes, perhaps I’ve overstayed a bit, perhaps,” he told Russian reporters, before making clear he would not leave “just like that”.

President Lukashenko talks to Russian reporters on 8 Septimage copyrightReuters
image captionThe Belarusian leader said if he stood down his supporters would be “slaughtered”

He has accused Western powers of interference and is expected to visit Moscow “in the coming days” amid claims by Lithuania that he is planning deeper integration with Russia.

In an address to a Council of Europe committee, Ms Tikhanovskaya warned that any treaty made by Mr Lukashenko’s “illegitimate regime” would not be upheld “by a democratically elected Belarus government”.

Maria Kolesnikova is a prominent ally of Ms Tikhanovskaya, who left for Lithuania after her detention by authorities.

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What’s happened to Ms Kolesnikova?

There are conflicting reports about what happened at around 05:00 (02:00 GMT) on Tuesday at a border crossing south of the city of Gomel.

According to Belarus officials, she was with two opposition colleagues, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, who were in a BMW car. At the crossing, the car “accelerated sharply”, and Ms Kolesnikova “found herself outside the vehicle”. The official said she was “pushed out of it” and it continued to move towards Ukraine. Mr Lukashenko told Russian reporters she had been held for “violating the rules on crossing the state border”.

But Ukraine and opposition activists have rejected Belarus’s version of events. Anton Geraschenko, Ukraine’s deputy internal affairs minister, described the two men’s departure as “forcible expulsion”.

“Maria Kolesnikova could not be expelled from Belarus, because this brave woman took action to prevent her movement across the border,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “She remained on the territory of the Republic of Belarus.”

She is then reported to have torn up her passport at the border so she could not enter Ukraine, according to Interfax-Ukraine news agency which is citing “informed sources”.

On Monday, eyewitnesses saw masked men seize Ms Kolesnikova on the street in central Belarus and push her into a minibus.

The Co-ordination Council – a body set up by the opposition to oversee a transfer of power after the disputed election – later said it had no idea of her whereabouts.

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media captionWhat lies behind the Belarus protests?

What did Mr Lukashenko say?

In his interview with Russian media, the long-time Belarus leader said: “We are ready to reform the constitution; after that, I don’t rule out early presidential elections”, but he stressed it was not on the cards yet and that he had no intention of talking to the Co-ordination Council.

“I won’t leave just like that. I’ve been developing Belarus for a quarter of a century. I’m not going to simply throw all that way. What’s more, if I go, my supporters will be slaughtered,” he said, according to reporters who interviewed him.

Mr Lukashenko has twice appeared brandishing a gun during mass protests against his rule, and he said that action was meant to show he had not fled. “But really, only I can protect Belarusians now,” he asserted.

What has happened to the three women in Belarus opposition?

Of the three women who joined forces in the election against the Belarus leader, only Maria Kolesnikova is still in the country.

She was initially the campaign manager for presidential candidate Viktor Barbaryko before his arrest in June, when she decided to work with Veronika Tsepkalo and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya,

Ms Tikhanovskaya only decided to run in the vote after her husband was arrested and barred from standing. She was forced to leave Belarus for Lithuania the day after the vote, after she was detained for several hours.

Ms Tsepkalo has travelled to Poland with her husband Valery and children. Mr Tsepkalo, the former ambassador to the US for Belarus, was also barred from standing against President Lukashenko.

Another female activist, Olga Kovalkova, announced on Saturday she had fled to Poland amid threats of imprisonment.

“I’m the only one of the three of us who is still here,” Ms Kolesnikova told BBC Russian in an interview last month. “To understand exactly what’s going on, you really have to be here.”

Ms Kolesnikova described the recent demonstrations as “not a struggle for power” but “a struggle for human dignity and self-respect”. She said she and her team had decided against using bodyguards.

“No number of guards would be of any use if a bus full of riot police stopped us,” she said. “We all know what a police state is capable of.”

media captionA 73-year-old great-grandmother has turned into an unlikely hero for demonstrators in Belarus

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