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EU condemns Belarus vote, readies sanctions

Written by: Staff
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BRUSSELS, Mar 20 (Reuters) The European Union is set to sharpen sanctions against Belarus after condemning the ex-Soviet state's presidential election as neither free nor fair.

EU foreign ministers today backed sanctions such as visa bans that could be formalised in April after they have studied in detail the international observers' verdict on the polls.

But divisions emerged over the scope of sanctions, diplomats said, some countries demanding economic restrictions while others backed a more cautious approach.

''We are convinced that for democracy and democrats in Belarus the climate of winter will not prevail,'' said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country hold the EU's rotating presidency.

''We have started a discussion on possible restrictive measures,'' she said, adding the EU fully sided with findings of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

OSCE observers concluded yesterday's poll in Belarus, in which incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was declared the runaway winner, fell far short of accepted standards.

The executive European Commission said the sanctions could involve a visa ban on Belarus officials deemed responsible for any election rigging. Diplomats said it remained unclear if Lukashenko would be included.

''The actions need to be targeted against those responsible for that. We don't want to turn our backs on the people of Belarus, we don't want to abandon them,'' EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told a news conference.

Speaking to German radio, EU Industry and Enterprise Commissioner Guenter Verheugen called Belarus ''a dictatorship'', a view long expressed by the United States.

The EU has already banned six Belarussian officials from entering the bloc and the question now is how many officials it will target with new bans.

Belarus's Central Election Commission said Lukashenko won re-election with 82.6 percent of the vote to opposition hopeful Alexander Milinkevich's 6 percent in Sunday's election.

''NO SKIING FOR LUKASHENKO'' Diplomats said the ministers were split over the timing and scope of sanctions, with Poland and some other countries bordering Belarus demanding targeted economic sanctions and other EU members being more cautious.

''We might have smart sanctions which would be directed at people and companies linked to the Belarus regime,'' said Poland's deputy foreign minister, Stanislaw Komorowski, adding he backed a visa ban for Lukashenko.

''I see no possibility of Lukashenko coming for skiing in Zakopane (Polish ski resort),'' he said.

France said it was too early to speak about details.

''It's a situation from another age (in Belarus), which requires from us an extremely firm reaction,'' French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told a news briefing.

The Czech Republic prefers to avoid tough sanctions. ''I do prefer just to promote dialogue, and to support universities, NGOs, opposition, all democratic forces,'' said Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda.

Members of the European Parliament said Belarus should hold a new vote.

''The 82 per cent result for Lukashenko can in fact only be called a 'farce' and we will support the opposition in its request for new honest and fair elections,'' said Hans-Gert Poettering, chairman of the right-wing European Peoples' Party in the parliament.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Belarussian authorities to exercise restraint in dealing with any demonstrations by their opponents in the days ahead.

Reuters SY DB2251

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