Leading Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova tore up her passport at the border with Ukraine and threw away the pieces to foil an attempt by Belarusian authorities to force her across the border into Ukraine, her associate said Tuesday as protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule broke out again in the capital, Minsk.
Kolesnikova, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with Lukashenko on a transition of power, was detained Monday in the capital, Minsk, along with two other council members. Witnesses said she was bundled into a van by masked men.
Early Tuesday, Kolesnikova and the two other council members were driven to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine. Kolesnikova refused, and remained on the Belarusian side of the border in the custody of Belarusian authorities.
The two other council members, Ivan Kravtsov and Anton Rodnenkov, crossed into Ukraine.
At a press conference in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, later Tuesday, Rodnenkov confirmed reports that Kolesnikova tore up her passport to avoid being forced into Ukraine.
"She was pushed into the back seat [of the car], she yelled that she wasn't going anywhere," said Rodnenkov. "She tore up her passport," he added, and then exited the car through a window and walked back to the Belarusian border.
Anton Bychkovsky, spokesman for Belarus’s Border Guard Committee, confirmed that Kolesnikova was in the custody of Belarusian authorities, but refused to give any details of what happened on the border.
Kolesnikova played a major role in the campaign of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory over Lukashenko in a disputed election last month, and has since addressed huge rallies calling for the president’s resignation.
Belarus has applied similar tactics of trying to force other opposition figures out of the country in a bid to end a month of demonstrations against the reelection of Lukashenko in a vote that protesters see as rigged.
Lukashenko admits overstaying, but refuses to step down
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 US and the EU, which said the August 9 election was neither free nor fair.
In an interview with Russian media Tuesday, Lukashenko repeated his position that he would not step down from power. But the authoritarian leader did not rule out early presidential elections, according to a journalist who interviewed him.
"Yes, maybe I overstayed a bit," Russian journalist Roman Babayan cited Lukashenko as saying. But the former state farm manager insisted he was the only one who could lead Belarus. "I won't talk to the opposition Coordination Council because I don't know who these people are," Lukashenko said. "They are no sort of opposition. Everything they suggest is a catastrophe for Belarus and the Belarusian people."
The interview came as Belarusian, Russian and Serbian military forces prepared to take part in joint military exercises in Belarus, the Russian RIA news agency quoted the Belarusian defence ministry as saying. Russian and Serbian forces would arrive in Belarus from September 10 to 15, RIA said without providing further details.
Tsikhanouskaya tells European parliament Lukashenko lacks legitimacy
Meanwhile Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger to Lukashenko, addressed the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly on Tuesday via a video link from Lithuania, where she fled a day after the election, under pressure from authorities.
In her address, Tsikhanouskaya 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 said Lukashenko did not have any legitimacy after stealing the vote and warned other countries against making any deals with the Belarusian government.
“He does not represent Belarus anymore,” she said.
Bundled into a car, dropped off in no-man's land
After a brutal crackdown on protesters in the first few 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 opposition activists and demonstrators.
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, a top associate of Tsikhanouskaya, Olga Kovalkova, also moved to Poland after the authorities threatened to keep her in jail for a long time if she refused to leave the country.
Kovalkova said agents of the Belarusian State Security Committee put her into a car, where she was told 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 driving into Poland to take her on board.
The efforts to make opposition activists leave the country come amid a criminal probe against members of the Coordination Council. Belarusian prosecutors have accused them of undermining the country's security by calling for talks on a transition of power. Several council members were arrested and some others called for questioning.
Last week, Kolesnikova announced the creation of a new party, Together. She said the move would help overcome the current crisis, but the party founders’ call for constitutional changes has stunned some other opposition council members, who argued that it could divert attention from the main goal of getting Lukashenko to step down.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)