Masked men have detained Belarusian protest leader Maria Kolesnikova in central Minsk and driven her away in a van while two of her allies have also disappeared, the opposition movement says.
Kolesnikova, a member of the opposition co-ordination council, is 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.
Three European Union diplomats told Reuters that the EU is now preparing to impose economic sanctions on 31 senior Belarus officials, including the interior minister, in response to the election and subsequent crackdown.
Police in Minsk were cited by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying they had not detained Kolesnikova.
A witness, Anastasia, was cited by the Tut.By media outlet as saying she had seen Kolesnikova pushed into a dark-coloured van by masked men in plain clothes in central Minsk.
She said Kolesnikova’s mobile phone had dropped to the ground during the tussle and that one of the masked men detaining her had picked it up before the van sped off.
The opposition council said two other activists, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, disappeared soon afterwards and said the authorities appeared to be systematically targeting its members.
“It’s obvious that these methods are illegal and cannot lead to anything else apart from an escalation in the situation in the country, deepening the crisis and fuelling protests,” it said in a statement.
“We see that the authorities have openly begun to use terror tactics in recent days,” it added, calling the actions crimes against humanity.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius likened what had happened to Kolesnikova to something that the Stalin-era secret police in the Soviet Union would have done.
“Instead of talking to the people of Belarus, the outgoing leadership is trying cynically (to) eliminate (them) one by one,” he wrote on Twitter.
“The kidnapping… is a disgrace. Stalinist NKVD methods are being applied in 21st century Europe. She must be released immediately”.
Before the election, Kolesnikova had joined forces with opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who later fled to Lithuania, and with Veronika Tsepkalo, who has since left for Poland.