Nobel laureate warns arrests won't stop Belarus protests

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Photo credit Police officers detain protesters during a rally in support of Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with Lukashenko on a transition of power, was detained Monday in the capital of Minsk with two other council members, in Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. A leading opposition activist in Belarus is being held on the border with Ukraine after she resisted attempts by authorities to deport her from the country as part of a clampdown on protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. (AP Photo)
By The Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarusian authorities on Wednesday detained one of the last leading members of an opposition council who remained free, moving methodically to end a month of protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with the country's leader of 26 years on a transition of power, was taken out of the council's office by unidentified people in ski masks, associate Gleb German said.

Znak only had time to text message “masks” before they took the phone away from him. German said.

Unidentified people were also trying to enter the apartment of writer Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature and now the only member of the council's executive presidium still free in Belarus.

Last month, Alexievich was questioned by Belarusian investigators, who have opened a criminal investigation into members of the Coordination Council, accusing them of undermining national security by calling for a transfer of power. Several council members were arrested and others were forcibly expelled from the country.

Alexievich dismissed the official accusations, saying in a statement released Wednesday that the council was seeking to defuse the crisis sparked by Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term by offering to foster a dialogue between authorities and protesters. The president's critics say the Aug. 9 election was rigged.

“We weren't preparing a coup, we were trying to prevent a split in our country,” Alexievich said.

She warned that the arrests of opposition activists will not end protests.

“They have stolen our country and now they are trying to abduct the best of us,” Alexievich said. “But hundreds of others will come to replace those who have been taken away from our ranks. It wasn't the Coordination Council that rebelled, it was the entire country that raised.”

Maria Kolesnikova, a leading member of the council, was detained Monday in the capital of Minsk along with two other council members and then 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, but her whereabouts were unclear.

Lukashenko has dismissed the opposition as Western stooges and rejected demands from the U.S. and the European Union to engage in a dialogue with protesters who see his reelection as rigged and are demanding his resignation.

After a brutal police crackdown in the initial days after the vote stoked international outrage and swelled the ranks of protesters, authorities in Belarus have switched to threats and selective arrests of activists and demonstrators to stamp out the unrest.

Police dispersed a few hundred demonstrators rallying in Minsk late Tuesday in solidarity with Kolesnikova and detained at least 45 protesters, according to the Viasna human rights center.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement expressing concern about the attempt to expel Kolesnikova and warning that the United States and its allies are considering sanctions against Belarus.

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Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Follow all AP stories on the developments in Belarus at https://apnews.com/Belarus