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EU to sharpen sanctions on Belarus after vote

Written by: Staff
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BRUSSELS, Mar 20 (Reuters) The European Union was set to sharpen sanctions against Belarus after international observers today said the former Soviet republic's presidential election was neither free nor fair.

EU foreign ministers gave initial backing for sanctions such as visa bans that are expected to be formalised next month after the observers' verdict is analysed in detail, diplomats said.

A mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the Belarus poll, in which incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was declared the runaway winner, fell far short of accepted standards.

''There is a consensus to reinforce measures against Belarus, but details of the OSCE report need to be studied first. A decision is expected next month,'' one EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters.

The executive European Commission earlier 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.

''From what we have already seen, my view is that some action is very likely,'' EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told a news briefing.

''I don't think we are thinking of economic sanctions ...

extending visa bans will certainly be one part of it,'' she said, adding that any action should not harm the general population.

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 look to target with new bans.

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

''CLIMATE OF INTIMIDATION'' Current EU president Austria said the Belarus elections were marred by intimidation.

''The climate of intimidation and hindering of the opposition to do their work was upsetting,'' Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said.

Belarus' neighbour Poland emerged as the strongest advocate of a tough EU line towards Lukashenko.

Poland's deputy foreign minister, Stanislaw Komorowski, told Reuters the sanctions could involve a freeze on financial assets of people with a visa ban and wider targeted economic sanctions, although other EU officials play down that prospect.

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

The EU diplomat said countries bordering Belarus were generally in favour of sharper sanctions, though other countries were more cautious on sanctions.

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

REUTERS DKS LR KP2000

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