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Belarus's Tsikhanouskaya calls for release of opposition leader Kolesnikova

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on Tuesday for the release of Maria Kolesnikova, the highest-profile opposition figure still at large until this week, when supporters say she was snatched into a van.

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Tsikhanouskaya, the main candidate standing against President Alexander Lukashenko in the Aug. 9 election, fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the vote which her followers say she won.

With most opposition figures jailed or in exile, a movement that has drawn tens of thousands of people onto the streets for demonstrations was led in part by musician-turned-politician Kolesnikova, who vanished on Monday, the morning after one of the biggest rallies yet.

“I hope that she will be released soon, because it would be one more mistake from our authorities if they put her in jail without any reason”, Tsikhanouskaya told Reuters at her headquarters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. “It would make our people even angrier.”

Neighbouring Ukraine has said Belarusian authorities attempted to forcibly expel Kolesnikova. Interfax news agency said she prevented her expulsion by tearing up her passport at the frontier. Belarusian border guards have said she is in detention but have not said where.

Tsikhanouskaya said she was proud that Kolesnikova had managed to prevent her forcible expulsion.

Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old English teacher and political novice, emerged as the consensus opposition candidate after better known figures, including her own jailed activist husband, were barred from standing. She has called for new elections and said she would not stand.

Tsikhanouskaya said Kolesnikova had told her she expected to be arrested at some point, and had a bag packed with warm clothes and spare underwear to take to jail.

Still, Tsikhanouskaya said she was shocked by what she called a kidnapping in the street, and urged the international community to apply pressure on Lukashenko to begin negotiations with the opposition.

“The first steps should be sanctions on certain persons, just to show the intention of the international society to help the Belarusian people. Maybe in the future we will need some more help, if the authorities don’t go for dialogue”, she said.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have imposed sanctions on 30 people including Lukashenko. The European Union is drawing up a list of individuals for its own sanctions, but has so far been cautious out of concern that strong action could drive Russia to intervene on behalf of Lukashenko.

Lithuania expressed concern on Monday that Lukashenko might relinquish his country’s independence by signing an agreement on deeper integration with Russia.

Tsikhanouskaya suggested any such treaty would be illegitimate.

“It’s a country for Belarusians and we want to keep our independence”, she said. “So I ask all the leaders .... to remember that only Belarus’s people can decide how to live in our country.”

Reporting By Andrius Sytas; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Peter Graff