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Belarus raps Western "interference" after rally

Written by: Staff

MINSK, Mar 27 (Reuters) Belarus accused the West today of trying to foment unrest on its streets, while opposition leaders denounced each other over the failure of a weekend protest broken up by the police.

Minsk said the European Union and Washington were ''on the verge of anti-Belarussian hysteria'' in condemning police action and accusing President Alexander Lukashenko of electoral fraud.

Opposition heads Alexander Kozulin and Alexander Milinkevich called protests after losing presidential polls which gave Lukashenko, criticised in the West for his authoritarian rule but viewed by Moscow as an ally of sorts, 83 percent.

The EU demanded veteran leader Lukashenko, admired by many here as the man whose tough rule has saved Belarus from turmoil that has befallen many ex-Soviet countries, release Kozulin, arrested yesterday, and said it was ''appalled'' by the clashes.

''It is self-evident to objective observers that the situation in Belarus is absolutely calm,'' a Foreign Ministry statement said. ''We urge the European Union and the United States to stop attempts to destabilise the country from abroad.'' It said police had demonstrated restraint and moved in to disperse protesters only after many had marched off to a pre-trial detention centre at Kozulin's urging.

''This was no peaceful action, they threw stones and bottles at us, their flags turned into spears,'' Major Dmitry Pavlichenko, the commander of one of Belarus's special police forces, told the local STV channel today. ''My men suffered.'' This evening, up to 100 mostly young people gathered in sombre silence at a monument in central Minsk to put hundreds of candles on the ground to show solidarity with those detained.

DECLINED Kozulin's wife Irina told Reuters police had declined to tell her where her husband was being held. Opposition members believe he is in a detention centre in Zhodino, a town 40 km northeast of the capital.

Rights activists estimate some 100 people may have been detained. Courts were due to start hearing cases tomorrow.

The opposition had rallied up to 10,000 supporters over the last week -- protests unmatched in recent years in a country ruled with a Soviet-style authoritarian hand.

It was not a good weekend for the opposition, that had hoped to turn protests into a movement to ''liberate'' Belarus from Lukashenko.

Yestery's march on the detention centre, where opposition activists are held, exposed divisions in the anti-Lukashenko front that may hearten the president.

Milinkevich accused Kozulin of foolhardiness in leading the march after the end of the rally. That prompted Kozulin's staff to call their former ally a ''coward''.

They branded Milinkevich ''a so-called democrat... who was jealous of Kozulin during the peaceful protests since March 19, and did not have the strength to lead despite the money, publicity and support from Europe and the United States''.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he wanted to invite Milinkevich to an EU meeting next month.

Poland's foreign ministry said a former ambassador to Belarus and a Polish journalist had been detained in an earlier police swoop on Friday and were beaten by police.

The authorities allowed some 50 members of the pro-Lukashenko Belarussian Republican Youth Union to protest at the Polish and U.S. embassies at what they called ''corrupt opposition paid from abroad'' and ''Western double standards''.

''Down with the hirelings paid from abroad,'' said one poster shown by Belarussian television.

Reuters PDS 0017

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