Belarussian officers convicted of spying for Poland

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MINSK, Sep 14 (Reuters)-The Supreme Court of ex-Soviet Belarus today convicted four army officers of spying for Poland, an EU state viewed with suspicion by President Alexander Lukashenko, and jailed them for up to 10 years.

The verdict, read out in court, said the four defendants were ''found guilty of espionage and damaging Belarus's external security and defence capability''.

A 10-year sentence was handed down on Vladimir Ruskin, convicted on a further charge of organising espionage activity.

The three others -- Sergei Kornelyuk, Pavel Petkevich and Viktor Bogdan -- received seven years in a labour camp.

All were discharged from the military and stripped of their ranks. A Russian army officer implicated in the affair is to face charges in Russia, according to media reports.

Belarus, accused of crushing fundamental rights under Lukashenko, has had strained relations with Poland over allegations that Warsaw foments unrest in the country through a 400,000-strong Polish minority.

Poland's Foreign Ministry declined comment on the verdict.

The Belarussians were detained early this year by the country's security service, still known by its Soviet-era name, the KGB. Their detention was only made public in July, when the charges were announced.

Official accounts said the officers had been working on behalf of Polish intelligence to provide secret information on the operations of the Belarussian armed forces and the country's joint air defence system with Russia.

Lukashenko, a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy, has long had uneasy relations with Poland, a close Washington ally and one of three EU states on Belarus's western border.

In 2005, Belarussian riot police seized the Polish community's offices in the western town of Grodno, removed its leaders and oversaw the election of more compliant executives.

The incident prompted each country to expel the other's diplomats. Accusations of spying or interference have boosted tension, with Belarussian officials periodically denying entry to Polish dignitaries.

Lukashenko, barred from entering the United States and European Union, is accused of hounding opponents, stifling media and rigging elections, including his own re-election last year to a third term.

REUTERS SBC VC1745

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