Belarus protests: UK says release of ‘abducted’ Maria Kolesnikova must be ‘highest priority’

The UK has called for political prisoners in Belarus to be released after the last member of the female opposition trio who campaigned against President Lukashenko was apparently abducted.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that he was “seriously concerned for the welfare of Maria Kolesnikova”.

“Lukashenko’s regime must make her safe return their highest priority,” he added.

(L-R) Veronika Tsepkalo, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova are taking on Belarus's long-time president Alaxander Lukashenko

“The regime must cease brutalising protestors, release political prisoners and begin dialogue with the opposition”.

The opposition co-ordination council earlier confirmed that Ms Kolesnikova and two members of her team were kidnapped and demanded their immediate release.

Earlier, an eyewitness told the website they had seen her being bundled into the back of a van on Monday morning near the National Art Museum.

Belarusian police say they have not detained her.

Maria Kolesnikova has continued to keep a high public profile ever since the disputed 9 August election in Belarus.

She has been attending many rallies despite the regime’s growing crackdown on the opposition – ultimately forcing both her campaign fellows, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, to flee the country.

Ms Kolesnikova was the only one of the three still left in Belarus.

She was the campaign manager of jailed presidential candidate and banker, Viktor Babariko.

Last Tuesday, she and Mr Babariko’s campaign team announced they would be setting up a new political party, “Together”, focused on constitutional reform.

It prompted rare disagreement with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who has set herself up as head of the recently formed opposition council.

Ms Tikhanovskaya said the main goals of the protest movement should remain fresh elections and the removal of President Lukashenko, as well as the release of political prisoners.

Ms Kolesnikova, a member of the council established to facilitate talks with President Lukashenko, was allegedly put on a minibus and taken away by unknown people earlier today.

Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, also a presidential candidate, has been jailed since May.

On Saturday, another leading member of the opposition council who was arrested on 25 August arrived in Warsaw, saying she had been forced by the authorities to leave the country.

Olga Kovalkova said she was taken from the detention centre where she was being held, told to wear a mask and was driven across the border.

She said the authorities told her the alternative was numerous further arrests.

Mr Lukashenko denies electoral fraud, and with the support of Russia, has rejected calls from his main opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled into exile two days after the vote.

Demonstrations have continued throughout the four weeks since the election.

Following arrests last Saturday, the interior ministry said in a statement that it planned to beef up security and “take all necessary measures to suppress such actions and prevent violations of public order” on Sunday.

Former English teacher Ms Tsikhanouskaya, 37, is set to meet the Polish prime minister in Warsaw next week.

She said in a video address on Saturday that the momentum of the protests was irreversible.

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“Belarusians have already changed, they have awakened and it is impossible to push them back into the former mindset,” she said.

Lithuania’s foreign minister urged the European Union to impose sanctions on Belarus and counter Russia’s influence or risk undermining the credibility of its foreign policy.

“Sometimes we react too late and our measures are fragmented and aren’t making any impression on society or the people in power,” Linas Linkevicius said in an interview published in the Financial Times.

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