Sept. 8 (UPI) — The United States called on the Belarusian authorities Tuesday to release all political detainees, including opposition protest leader Maria Kolesnikova who was abducted a day before and reportedly thwarted government attempts to force her across the border into Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commended Kolesnikova’s courage and that of the Belarusian people for protesting the widely discredited re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko on Aug. 9 to a sixth term amid harsh police crackdown that has resulted in hundreds arrested.
“We call on the Belarusian authorities to end the violence against their own people, release all those who have been unjustly detained … and engage in meaningful dialogue with genuine representatives of Belarusian society,” the United States’ top diplomat said in a statement.
Kolesnikova is one of three female activists who formed the Belarusian Coordination Council seeking to annul Lukashenko’s re-election, accusing it of having been rigged.
Protests have rocked Minsk against the election and to end Lukashenko’s regime with police on Sunday arresting at least 633 people.
On Monday, Kolesnikova and two other members of the Cooperative Council were abducted from the streets of Minsk, attracting the condemnation of European leaders who demanded they be released.
The State Border Guard Service of Ukraine confirmed in a statement that Anton Rodenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, the two other council members who were abducted, had arrived in Ukraine after passing necessary border control measures but Kolesnikova was not with them.
“The citizen of the Republic of Belarus M. Kolesnikova did not arrive at the checkpoints of Ukraine for border control,” the statement said.
From the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Rodnenkov told reporters during a press conference that he did not know where Kolesnikova was.
He said he and Kravtsovafter were kidnapped on Monday on their way to Kolesnikova’s residence following reports that she had been abducted.
Hoods were placed on their heads and they were interrogated, he said, before they accepted an offer to go with Kolesnikova to Ukraine.
They were then driven to the neighboring country early Tuesday but as they reached a checkpoint between the two nations, Kolesnikova tore up her passport and climbed out from the vehicle, he said.
“What they were interested in was getting Maria Kolesnikova outside of the country,” he said. “They said this was necessary to de-escalate the situation.”
Of the three women who founded the council, two have left for exile in neighboring countries.
“She’s really a hero,” he said. “You must understand that.”
Anton Gerashchenko, Ukraine’s deputy minister at the Ministry of Internal, confirmed in a statement that their exit from Belarus was not voluntary.
“It was a forced expulsion from her native country in order to discredit the Belarusian opposition,” he said in a statement on Facebook. “Maria Kolesnikova was not expelled from Belarus because this brave woman took steps to prevent her from moving across the border.”
He said she did not enter Ukraine and remains in Belarus.
“Alexander Lukashenko is personally responsible for her life and health,” he said.
Belarus has launched a criminal investigation into the Coordination Council, and Lukashenko told Russian reporters on Tuesday that the trio had “fled” to Ukraine, Belarus’ state-owned Belta news agency reported.
He said Belarus’ authorities have detained Kolesnikova after she was thrown from a moving vehicle while her two companions made into the neighboring country.
“As far as I know now, the Ukrainians apprehended them. We are now in negotiations in order to return them to our custody,” he said, accusing them of breaking through an auxiliary border checkpoint.
“I wonder why they wanted to go to Ukraine instead of Lithuania or Poland as they usually go there,” he said.
Following reports of her abduction, Dominic Raad, the foreign secretary for Britain, said they were “seriously concerned” for Kolesnikova’s welfare.
“Lukashenko’s regime must make her safe return their highest priority,” he said in a statement.