EU leaders condemn Belarus crackdown against protesters

European Union leaders condemned the latest crackdown against opposition protesters by Belarusian authorities Friday, and were expected to endorse a move to slap new sanctions against top officials there for what they called "fundamentally flawed" elections.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU presidency, told reporters at an EU leaders summit they would discuss the latest events in Belarus after police in Minsk stormed the opposition tent camp there early Friday morning. Police detained hundreds of demonstrators who had spent a fourth night in a central square to protest President Alexander Lukashenko's victory in the disputed election.

"I think we must take a clear stance about Belarus and it is the last dictatorship in Europe, it is a neighboring country to the European Union, and we have to give all possible support to democratic forces inside the country," Swedish Prime Minster Goran Persson said.

The EU has already declared that the presidential vote, which saw Lukashenko returned to office for a third consecutive term, was not free and fair and violated international democratic norms. "Events during the night have confirmed this negative assessment and we urge the Belarus authorities to respect the freedom of assembly and to release the prisoners," Plassnik told reporters.

In a draft declaration to be endorsed by the 25 EU leaders at the summit, they call Belarus "a sad exception ... on a continent of open and democratic societies." They concluded that the 25-nation bloc "is therefore determined to take restrictive measures against those politically and administratively responsible for violations of international electoral standards." The EU has already in place a visa travel ban against six Belarusian officials, but it does not include Lukashenko. "What happened last night is really very, very negative and young people on the street, they have a right to protest, to make really known their opinion about this regime," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who acknowledged that sanctions were unlikely to force out Lukashenko.

"If we speak about sanctions we have to be sure that the target is not the people. With sanctions we cannot change the regime." The EU draft declaration urged Belarusian authorities "to allow the people of Belarus to exercise their freedom of assembly and expression," and called for police to release all opposition protesters from detention.

Main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich sent a letter to EU leaders Thursday during the first day of summit talks, thanking them for their "moral support." "Dear European leaders, citizens of a united Europe , Belarusian democratic forces are determined to continue the fight for changes in our country," he wrote in his letter. "We're not destroyed, we're not dejected, victory will be ours." Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, whose country holds the EU presidency, said Thursday that Lukashenko's electoral victory "can't be described as free and fair."

Members of the European Parliament also backed calls for the EU to get tough with Belarus . The EU over the past months has already moved to fund pro-democracy radio broadcasts and human rights groups in Belarus . The draft EU declaration said the EU would continue "its commitment to engage with Belarusian society by intensifying people to people contacts and enhancing access to independent sources of information", reports the AP.


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