- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

MINSK, Belarus — The United States joined European nations yesterday in imposing sanctions on Belarus in retaliation for a crackdown on political protesters after an election that the White House said was fraudulent.

In the Belarusian capital, Minsk, opposition protesters promised to go ahead with a rally today, even though a police raid on its tent camp early yesterday showed the regime is not relaxing its hard line against dissent.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Washington would act in unison with the European Union in applying targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko and other senior government officials.

He said the United States strongly condemned actions by Belarus’ security forces who seized and detained citizens demonstrating against the official results of the presidential election.

“The United States calls on authorities in Belarus to release without delay the hundreds of citizens who have been detained not only in the past 24 hours but in recent days and weeks simply for expressing their political views,” Mr. McClellan said.

Riot police broke up the camp on Minsk’s main square before dawn yesterday, arresting hundreds of demonstrators who had been part of unprecedented round-the-clock protests in this tightly controlled former Soviet state. Protesters were loaded onto trucks and taken to jail; some who escaped or were freed said they were beaten by police.

Opposition supporters holding flowers returned to the square at twilight yesterday, but police seized some of them, pushed the rest of the small crowd down the street and prevented pedestrians on their way home from work from walking through the square.

The U.S.-EU sanctions appear unlikely to influence Mr. Lukashenko, who despises the West and is pushing for a closer union of Belarus and Russia.

Mr. Lukashenko was declared the landslide winner of a third term in Sunday’s elections, which European observers said were severely flawed but which Russian officials have defended.

Russia’s foreign minister yesterday took issue with press descriptions of police storming the tent camp.

“I would not call the scenes I saw on TV today the use of force,” Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Mr. Lukashenko’s supporters, who credit him with providing economic and political stability, were happy to see the tent camp gone.

“They had no business being there; it was a stupid rally,” said Natalia, 57, a pensioner who declined to give her last name for fear of attracting attention. “We live OK and if something’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

The tough response, after days of allowing demonstrations, indicated police have no intention of allowing today’s gathering. Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich has said he plans to reveal a strategy at the weekend rally to drive forward the call for new elections without Mr. Lukashenko’s participation.

An election-night protest attracted an estimated 10,000 people — an enormous turnout for a country in which police usually act swiftly and brutally to suppress unauthorized gatherings. Another rally Monday raised the stakes when activists set up tents and stayed through the night, continuing there until the raid.

A former Polish ambassador to Belarus, Mariusz Maszkiewicz, was among those arrested. He said he and others in the same police truck were severely beaten, Polish Embassy spokeswoman Monika Sadkowska said.

Police in Belarus have arrested 22 reporters since the beginning of the week, the Paris-based international press watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said yesterday.

The group said four members of the Belarus Association of Journalists and reporters for Canadian, Georgian and Russian news organizations were among those arrested. Of them, 13 were still in jail, mostly serving sentences of several days for purported “hooliganism,” “taking part in an unauthorized gathering” or for “offering obscenities.”

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