Abducted Opposition Leader in Belarus Averts Expulsion to Ukraine

MOSCOW — Maria Kolesnikova, a prominent opposition leader in Belarus who vanished on Monday in what her supporters said was a kidnapping by security agents, reappeared overnight at her country’s southern border with Ukraine.

But an elaborate operation aimed at forcing her to leave Belarus came unstuck, according to Ukrainian media reports, when she destroyed her passport to make it impossible for Ukraine to admit her.

The whereabouts of Ms. Kolesnikova had been the focus of intense speculation since she disappeared from a street in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, early on Monday. A witness quoted by local media said Ms. Kolesnikova, a leading member of a coordinating council set up by opponents of Belarus’ embattled president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, had been grabbed by masked abductors and bundled into a van.

Her supporters denounced the apparent abduction as the work of Mr. Lukashenko’s security forces and a sign that the authorities had shifted their strategy in response to nearly a month of protests over a disputed election on Aug 9.

Instead of attacking protesters with often savage violence, the security apparatus now seems to be trying to demobilize the opposition movement by picking off its leaders one by one and sending them out of the country.

In a statement issued early Tuesday, Ukraine’s border guard service said that two citizens of Belarus, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, both member of the opposition’s coordinating council, had crossed into Ukraine but were not accompanied by Ms. Kolesnikova.

Interfax-Ukraine, an independent news agency, reported that Ms. Kolesnikova had been driven to the border crossing with her two fellow opposition activists but tore up her passport after entering the frontier zone to prevent Belarus security officials pushing her into Ukraine.

Ukraine’s deputy minister for internal affairs, Anton Gerashchenko, said the authorities in Belarus had planned a “forced expulsion” of Ms. Kolesnikova but could not complete their plan “because this brave woman took action to prevent her movement across the border. She remained on the territory of the Republic of Belarus.”

Belta, the official Belarus news agency, reported that a car carrying Ms. Kolesnikova and her two opposition colleagues had arrived at the frontier around 4 a.m. on Tuesday but that Mr. Kolesnikova had been pushed from the vehicle as it sped off toward the Ukrainian border post.

This bizarre version of events cast what seems to have been a forced departure gone awry as an unsuccessful escape attempt. Belta claimed that the car carrying Ms. Kolesnikova had “posed a threat to the life of a border guard.”

Ms. Kolesnikova had been the last member still active inside Belarus of a trio of female activists behind a groundswell of opposition to Mr. Lukashenko. The other two, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s main challenger in the disputed election, and Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of a would-be candidate who fled before polling day, both left Belarus to avoid arrest soon after Mr. Lukashenko claimed re-election.

Since then, a number of other opposition activists have also left Belarus under duress, threatened with long jail terms and trouble for their families if they stayed.

This program of expulsions seems to have begun at the advice of security officials from Moscow, who have become more involved in advising Mr. Lukashenko in recent weeks and have urged him to stop inflaming the anger of protesters with beatings and mass arrests.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has never warmed to Mr. Lukashenko but still sees him as an important bulwark against the West, announced at the end of August that he had formed a reserve force of Russian security officers to assist Belarus if “the situation gets out of control.”

In another sign of close collaboration between the two countries, Belarus announced on Tuesday that it would hold military exercises later this week with troops from Russia and Serbia. The exercises, called Slavic Brotherhood 2020, underscore an important propaganda point for Mr. Lukashenko, suggesting that he is not alone in his struggle for political survival but a sentinel for broader Slavic interests against the West.

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