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US and EU denounce Belarus president

Written by: Staff

VILNIUS, May 4 (Reuters) US Vice-President Dick Cheney today issued a stinging denunciation of the president of Belarus, saying there was no place in Europe for what he and others in Washington describe as ''Europe's last dictatorship''.

Cheney told leaders of post-communist nations meeting in the Baltic state of Lithuania that President Alexander Lukashenko presided over an administration that routinely resorted to vote-rigging, beatings and detentions.

''All of us are committed to democratic progress in Belarus. That nation has suffered in major wars and experienced terrible losses and now its people are denied basic freedoms by the last dictatorship in Europe,'' Cheney told the conference.

''The world knows what is happening in Belarus. Peaceful demonstrators have been beaten, dissidents have vanished and a climate of fear prevails under a government that subverts free elections. There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind.'' Both the United States and European Union have denounced Lukashenko's landslide re-election in March as blatantly rigged and accuse his administration of routinely cracking down on opponents and closing down independent media.

According to official tallies, Lukashenko won 83 percent of the vote in Belarus, an ex-Soviet state wedged between Russia and three new EU members which suffered huge losses in World War Two and was the country most affected by the Chernobyl disaster.

Main opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich was credited with six percent of the vote.

PROTESTS Up to 10,000 protesters unprecedented numbers in tightly-controlled Belarus staged rallies in Minsk for several days before they were dispersed by police. More than 600 people were jailed for up to 15 days on public order offences.

Milinkevich himself was sentenced to 15 days in jail last week for leading a protest against Lukashenko at which he pledged to turf the president out of office within two years using civil disobedience.

Cheney said he had met opposition activists at the Vilnius meeting but was disappointed not to find Milinkevich among them. He said Washington was closely monitoring events in Belarus.

The United States has long denounced Lukashenko, in office since 1994, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the first last year to describe his administration as the ''last dictatorship in Europe''.

The EU responded to the election outcome by slapping a visa ban on Lukashenko and 30 top officials.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana told the conference that Brussels viewed developments in Belarus as unacceptable.

''The European Union will continue to support the aspirations of the people of Belarus,'' Solana said. ''One day, I'm sure, they will see a democratic breakthrough in their country.'' Solana said that he ''emphatically'' repeated his earlier demands that the opposition leaders be released in Belarus.


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