EU demands Belarus release demonstrators

The European Union on Friday demanded that Belarus release all demonstrators jailed in connection with the country's recent presidential elections, saying they had been arrested simply because they exercised freedom of expression.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the 25-nation bloc objected to the way Belarusian authorities were handling the estimated 500 demonstrators jailed around the time of the country's disputed March 19 election.

"By acting in this way, the Belarusian regime has taken a further step away from the values and rule of law that are the foundation of European society," Plassnik said in a statement. She said she was especially concerned over reports that some of the detainees might have been mistreated.

Plassnik said EU foreign ministers at an April 10 meeting of the European Council would consider "restrictive measures" against those responsible for recent election violations.

She said the plight of the jailed protesters and the overall situation in Belarus would be the focus of a meeting Monday in Vienna between Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich.

The European Parliament said Friday it has invited Milinkevich to Strasbourg, France, to participate in next week's debate on the situation in the ex-Soviet republic.

Milinkevic,  who received 6.1 percent of the March 19 vote, was invited to speak in the EU assembly's plenary session on Wednesday. "There is not yet any confirmation that Milinkevich's people have received the letter" of invitation, parliament spokesman Jaume Duch said in Brussels.

Hundreds of opposition activists in Belarus are still in jail following the election, which handed authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a third term, reports the AP.

I.L.

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