Belarus activist resists effort to deport her to Ukraine

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Photo credit FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020 file photo, Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus' opposition leaders, gestures on the way to the Belarusian Investigative Committee in Minsk, Belarus. Maria Kolesnikova, a leading opposition activist and several other members of an opposition council in Belarus went missing Monday and their colleagues feared they were detained as part of the authorities' efforts to squelch nearly a month of protests against the re-election of the country's authoritarian leader. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A leading opposition activist in Belarus was held on the border with Ukraine on Tuesday after she resisted an attempt by authorities to deport her as part of government efforts to end a month of protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with the longtime leader on a transition of power, had been detained Monday in the capital of Minsk along with two other council members.

They were driven early Tuesday to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine. When they arrived in a no-man's land between the countries, Kolesnikova ripped her passport into small pieces to make it impossible for the authorities to expel her. She remained in custody on the Belarusian side of the border after the incident.

Two other council members who crossed into Ukraine, Ivan Kravtsov and Anton Rodnenkov, described Kolesnikova's action with open admiration.

“She was shouting that she won’t go anywhere,” Rodnenkov said at a news conference in Kyiv. “Sitting in the car, she saw her passport on a front seat and tore it into many small fragments, crumpled them and threw them out of the window. After that, she opened the back door and walked back to the Belarusian border.”

He said that “Maria is in great shape, full of energy and spirits, as always.”

Anton Bychkovsky, spokesman for Belarus' Border Guard Committee, confirmed she is in the custody of Belarusian authorities but refused to give any details of what happened on the border.

Belarus has used similar tactics to force other opposition figures to leave the country, seeking to end a month of demonstrations that followed the reelection of Lukashenko in a vote that protesters see as rigged. 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 United States and the European Union, which said the Aug. 9 election was neither free nor fair and shrugged off their demands to open a dialogue with the opposition.

In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement state the U.S. and its allies are considering additional sanctions targeted at Belarus, and he expressed concern about the attempt expulsion of Kalesnikava.

“We commend the courage of Ms. Kalesnikava and of the Belarusian people in peacefully asserting their right to pick their leaders in free and fair elections in the face of unjustified violence and repression by the Belarusian authorities, which included brazen beatings of peaceful marchers in broad daylight and hundreds of detentions September 6, as well as increasing reports of abductions,” Pompeo said.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger to Lukashenko, left for Lithuania a day after the election under pressure from authorities.

Addressing the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly on Tuesday, Tsikhanuskaya 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 stated that Lukashenko doesn't have any legitimacy after stealing the vote, warning other countries against deals with the Belarusian government.

“He does not represent Belarus anymore,” she said.

In separate comments about the attempt to expel Kolesnikova, Tsikhanouskaya praised her as a “real hero,” and said that “such actions are incapable of breaking the will of the people or their desire to change their country’s future.”

Kolesnikova, a 38-year-old flute player who led a popular arts center, entered politics just before the election. She led the campaign headquarters of a top potential challenger to Lukashenko, and when he was barred from running and jailed on charges widely seen as political, she joined Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign.

Another associate of Tsikhanouskaya, Antonina Konovalova, disappeared Tuesday after a court fined her for taking part in a weekend protest.

As evening fell, police dispersed several hundred demonstrators rallying in Minsk in solidarity with Kolesnikova and detained at least 45 protesters, according to the Viasna human rights center.

U.N. Secretary‑General Antonio Guterres expressed “very serious concern” at “the repeated use of force against peaceful protesters, as well as reported pressures on opposition civil society activists,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.