Alexander Lukashenko remains defiant despite mass protests as high-profile opposition figure goes missing.
Belarusian protest leader Maria Kolesnikova has been detained while trying to enter Ukraine on Tuesday, according to Belarusian border officials, a day after her allies said she was grabbed off the street by masked men.
The circumstances of her attempted journey to Ukraine were not immediately clear, with some media reports initially suggesting she made it across the border, something border guards on both sides later denied.
The opposition movement on Monday said unidentified men took Kolesnikova in central Minsk and drove her off in a minivan, while two other activists disappeared later.
Those two allies successfully crossed into Ukraine in the early hours of Tuesday, the Ukrainian border service said.
“Kolesnikova has now been detained, I can’t say concretely where she is, but she has been detained,” Anton Bychkovsky, a representative of the Belarusian border service, told Reuters news agency by phone.
“She was detained in connection with the circumstances under which they [the group] left the territory of Belarus,” he said.
The official Belta news agency said she had been travelling with the two other activists who made it into Ukraine. Kolesnikova could not immediately be reached for comment.
Belta quoted border officials as saying the three had tried to cross the border in a BMW car about 4am and said Kolesnikova’s car accelerated sharply after being confronted by a border guard.
“Kolesnikova was outside the vehicle. In fact, she was pushed from it and it continued moving towards the Ukrainian side,” Belta quoted the border service as saying.
According to the Interfax Ukraine news agency, Kolesnikova ripped up her passport to thwart an attempt to deport her to neighbouring Ukraine.
Deputy Ukrainian Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko said on Facebook that Kolesnikova, who had been missing for the past 24 hours, had successfully prevented “a forcible expulsion from her native country”.
Belarusian journalist Andrei Vaitovich told Al Jazeera that because Kolesnikova ripped up her passport, this “proves once again that this departure wasn’t voluntary”.
He said: “She didn’t [want] to leave the country. She told me a couple of days ago she will stay here, until the end. Today, what we saw once again proves that the Belarusian authorities just tried to kick out from the country the main opposition figures so they can’t lead the protest.”
Police in Minsk were cited by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying on Monday that they had not arrested Kolesnikova.
Kolesnikova, a member of the opposition coordination council, was the last of three female politicians left in Belarus who joined forces before an August 9 presidential election to try to challenge veteran incumbent Alexander Lukashenko.
A vocal critic of Lukashenko, she has played an important role in weeks of mass demonstrations and strikes by protesters who accuse Lukashenko of rigging his re-election.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for the last 26 years, denies that allegation and has accused foreign powers of trying to topple him in a revolution. He has responded with a crackdown which some of those detained say includes torture and beatings.
Lukashenko on Tuesday said he would not step down, despite the wave of protests, but did not rule out early presidential elections during an interview with Russian media, a radio journalist reported.
Lukashenko said his supporters would be attacked if he left, said Roman Babayan, editor in chief of the Moscow Talks radio station.