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The elected Ukrainian mayor of Kherson, Ihor Kolykhaiev, was arrested Tuesday, according to pro-Russian officials in the city, hours before the region’s Russian-backed administration announced plans for a referendum. 

Kolykhaiev’s arrest came amid growing efforts by the Russian-appointed authorities in the region to strip it of Ukrainian associations. 

An official in the interim administration of the Kherson region, Kateryna Gubareva, confirmed that Kolykhaiev had been detained. Kolykhaiev has remained in the city throughout the occupation, though the Russian-backed authorities removed him from office.  

Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-backed deputy head of the military-civilian administration of the Kherson region, said Kolykhaiev had “posed as a benefactor” but “made every effort to ensure that some people continued to believe in the return of neo-Nazism,” repeating claims echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s baseless justification for the war. Stremousov also claimed without offering evidence that Kolykhaiev “stole millions, and gave people a penny.”

First word of Kolykhaiev’s detention came from his adviser, Halyna Liashevska, who posted on Facebook on Tuesday that he had arrived “at one of the municipal institutions where the remaining employees of the city executive committee worked. As soon as he got out of the car, he was immediately detained by armed Russian guards.”

“They seized hard drives from computers, opened all safes, searched for documents,” Liashevska said. “All this time, Kolykhaiev was kept in a separate room in handcuffs under armed guard. After the search, Kolykhaiev was put into bus Z and taken away.” Z is the letter on many Russian vehicles in occupied parts of Ukraine.

Liashevska added: “I am sure that the arrest of Kolykhaiev is connected with his refusal to cooperate with the occupying authorities. A few days ago, Kolykhaiev received a letter from the ‘newly-appointed’ mayor, inviting him to discuss the future ‘organization of interaction.’ For refusing to meet, he was threatened with arrest.”

On June 13, Kolykhaiev said that he and the heads of different city departments were still in the city and continued to work for it, after the man appointed by the Russians as regional governor, Hennadii Lahuta, said that Kolykhaiev had made the wrong choice by remaining in Kherson.

Serhii Khlan, an adviser to the head of the Kherson civil military administration, told CNN that Kolykhaiev had an ambivalent relationship with the Russian occupation.

“For a while, the Russians even allowed him to sit under Ukrainian flags,” he said.

Khlan said the occupying authorities had then insisted that officials enter into contracts with the Russians and be paid in rubles. “Kolykhaiev had a choice: either sign the betrayal of Ukraine and finally openly work with the occupiers, or refuse to cooperate,” he said.

Kolykhaiev had continued in office for more than two months after the Russian invasion. In April, he told Ukrainian television: “I have no information about the so-called Kherson People’s Republic. Representatives of local authorities in Kherson are at their workplaces in the city administration.”

Kolykhaiev’s arrest followed a visit on Monday to Kherson by a member of the Russian parliament, Alexandr Boroday, a former prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

Boroday said he had left “with an ambivalent impression, because we understand that somewhere, of course, the city is ours, and somewhere not quite ours.”

“There is our mayor in Kherson, and there is also the pro-Ukrainian mayor. Kyiv’s mayor makes meetings, and our mayor makes meetings,” he said, adding, “It seems there is our administration with Vladimir Saldo [the Russian-appointed mayor], but at the same time Kherson lives a very double life.”

Boroday said the city was peaceful, “but it is not entirely clear whether our power is there or not. And this needs to be done as quickly as possible,” he said.

Within 36 hours of Boroday’s visit, the pro-Russian authorities announced plans for a referendum for the Kherson region to join the Russian Federation.

Some officials in Kherson previously detained have been released. On Wednesday, a nongovernmental organization, the Association of Cities of Ukraine, said the heads of two communities of Kherson — Oleksandr Babych of Hola Prystan and Ivan Samoilenko of Stanislav — were released from captivity.

Ukrainian authorities said earlier this month that “more and more people [in Kherson] refuse to cooperate with the occupiers and local collaborators.”


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