Germany and Britain have demanded answers on the whereabouts of senior Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, who was reportedly snatched off the streets in central Minsk.
Kolesnikova was taken along with members of the Coordination Council, which was set up to seek a peaceful transfer of power amid widespread rejection of elections that gave Alexander Lukashenko 80% of the vote.
The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, tweeted: “Seriously concerned for the welfare of Maria Kolesnikova in Belarus. Lukashenko’s regime must make her safe return their highest priority. The regime must cease brutalising protesters, release political prisoners and begin dialogue with the opposition.”
Voicing concern over the fate of Kolesnikova, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, demanded “clarity on the whereabouts and the release of all political prisoners in Belarus”.
The European Union also led calls for Belarus to immediately release more than 600 people arrested for protesting against the controversial election result that extended strongman Lukashenko’s 26 years in power.
The interior ministry said 633 people were detained on Sunday for illegal mass gatherings, one of the largest waves of arrests since the early days of the demonstrations.
“The EU expects the Belarusian authorities to ensure the immediate release of all detained on political grounds before and after the falsified 9 August presidential elections,” its diplomatic head Josep Borrell said. “The EU will impose sanctions on individuals responsible for violence, repression and falsification of election results.”
Canada’s foreign minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, called for the release of people detained, including opposition members and journalists. “The most recent arbitrary arrests of leading opposition voices and acts of repression are unacceptable,” he said.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival who left the country under pressure from the authorities and was granted refuge in EU member Lithuania, said in a statement: “The more they try to scare us, the more people will take to the streets.”
The disputed election has sparked demonstrations that have seen tens of thousands take to the streets of the ex-Soviet country of 9.5 million on Russia’s western borders, in an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko.
On Sunday, more than 100,000 people marched on the president’s residence, calling on him to quit. Riot police wearing balaclavas arrested 633 people. Gangs of pro-government thugs beat up protesters on their way home.
On Monday, unidentified masked men are said to have snatched Kolesnikova off the street and driven her away in a minivan in what appears to be a targeted attempt by the authorities to wipe out the protest movement. It is unclear who abducted Koselnikova. Her Coordination Council colleagues who have disappeared include Anton Rodnenkov, Ivan Kravtsov and Maxim Bogretsov. Her press team is also missing.
Rodnenkov reportedly disappeared about 40 minutes after confirming the abduction of Koselnikova. Police in Minsk were cited by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying they had not detained her.
Kolesnikova, 38, has been the only one of the trio of women who fronted Tikhanovskaya’s campaign to remain in Belarus.
Before the election, Kolesnikova had joined forces with the opposition presidential candidate Tikhanovskaya who later fled to Lithuania, and with Veronika Tsepkalo, who has also since left the country. Another leading activist, Olga Kovalkova, arrived in Poland on Saturday saying she had been told she would face arrest if she stayed in Belarus.
With Agence France-Presse