Belarus arrested three top opposition figures Wednesday who were on their way to Brussels to meet with European Union officials, a move certain to further fuel tensions with the bloc.
The 27-nation EU already has imposed sanctions on authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's regime over its crackdown on dissent and recalled its ambassadors from the ex-Soviet nation, which is wedged between Russia and Poland.
Those arrested were Anatoly Lebedko, the head of Belarus' largest opposition United Civil Party; Sergei Kalyakin, the leader of the Fair World leftist party; and Alexander Otroshchenkov, a leading activist of the European Belarus group.
They were detained on a train as they were heading to Moscow to fly to Brussels and have been put in police custody on charges of hooliganism pending a trial Thursday.
"It looked like some wild special operation: plainclothed people broke into our compartment and took us off the train by force," Lebedko told The Associated Press by phone before police took his cell away. "We have become hostages of Lukashenko."
Russia is the main sponsor and ally of Lukashenko's regime, and citizens of the two nations travel freely across the border.
Earlier this month, Lukashenko's government started barring the regime's critics from foreign trips. The victims of the ban would only learn about it once they were already at the airport.
Officials have refused to comment on reports that the government has compiled a list of journalists, opposition activists and human rights defenders forbidden to leave the nation of 10 million.
Lebedko has protested the ban in court, which hasn't yet delivered its ruling.
Lukashenko, who has been dubbed Europe's last dictator by critics, has been in office since 1994. He has relentlessly stifled dissent and independent media and was re-elected in a 2010 vote that Western countries and monitors called deeply flawed.
Belarusian rights activists say 12 opposition activists, including two former presidential candidates, are in prison on political charges.