Maxim Znak, one of Belarus’s leading opposition figures, was reportedly detained by masked men on Wednesday morning, in the latest step in a sweeping crackdown on opponents of autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko.

Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the eastern European nation since 1994, has been battling to retain his hold on power since huge protests erupted against his regime after he claimed a landslide victory in a deeply flawed presidential election last month.

Local media reported that Mr Znak, a lawyer, was taken away from his office by men in plain clothes, and that his house was searched.

Gleb Glebov, from the team of jailed opposition presidential candidate Viktor Babariko told Tut.by, an independent Belarusian website, that he had been in touch with Mr Znak briefly before losing contact.

“At 8.30 Maxim was meant to have an interview, but he didn’t join the Zoom call. I called him. He said: ‘It looks like someone is here’, rang off and wrote the word ‘masks’. Now he’s unreachable,” Mr Glebov said.

The detention of Mr Znak means that five of the seven leaders of the Co-ordination Council, set up by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate in last month’s election, to negotiate a transition of power away from Mr Lukashenko, have either been detained or forcibly taken abroad.

Prosecutors have launched a criminal probe into the Council, claiming that it represents a threat to Belarus’s state security.

Mr Znak’s detention comes a day after Belarusian authorities tried to deport Maria Kolesnikova, who along with Ms Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo spearheaded the opposition campaign against Mr Lukashenko, and was detained in central Minsk on Monday.

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Two of Ms Kolesnikova’s allies, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, who were also detained on Monday, told a press conference in Kyiv on Tuesday night that they had been taken to the border with Ukraine, where Ms Kolesnikova had been put in a car with them, and told to leave Belarus.

While they agreed to leave, Ms Kolesnikova refused, and tore up her passport to make it impossible for her to be deported, before walking back to the Belarusian side of the border, they said. She was subsequently detained again.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, praised Ms Kolesnikova’s courage and warned that the US was considering “additional targeted sanctions to promote accountability for those involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus”.

“We call on the Belarusian authorities to end the violence against their own people, release all those who have been unjustly detained, including US citizen Vitali Shkliarov, and engage in meaningful dialogue with genuine representatives of Belarusian society,” he said.

The EU is also drawing up a list of sanctions, while Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, have already imposed sanctions.

However, Mr Lukashenko has been backed by the Kremlin, with Russian president Vladimir Putin pledging to deploy a police reserve in Belarus to protect his counterpart’s regime if the protests turn violent.

Via Financial Times