Lithuania calls on Minsk to extend OSCE mission

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Lithuania promised action on Monday to make neighbouring Belarus rethink a decision halting operations of Europe's top rights watchdog after it had criticised Minsk's handling of disputed presidential elections.

Lithuania, which took over the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's rotating presidency on January 1, also called on Belarus to release opposition candidates detained after last month's election which gave President Alexander Lukashenko a fourth term in office.

Belarus declared last Friday that the OSCE could no longer work there after it criticised conduct of the December 19 election and a police crackdown, in which opposition demonstrators were detained and beaten.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who met Lukashenko before the vote, promised unspecified measures to persuade Minsk to change its mind, Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said.

"We are taking diplomatic steps to make Minsk revise this decision," Azubalis told reporters after meeting Grybauskaite. "If I disclose those steps, they would not be diplomatic," he added, when asked to elaborate.

Lukashenko has been flirting with the European Union in recent years, and Brussels had dangled the prospect of financial aid if the election demonstrated at least a veneer of democracy.

But relations with EU are expected to sour after the OSCE described the vote as flawed and accused police of heavy-handed tactics after they beat and arrested protesters and rounded up opposition candidates.

Belarus has released from detention one of the five opposition presidential candidates charged with organising mass disorder on the night of the presidential election, his party said on Monday.

Nearly 700 protesters and journalists were arrested during a night of demonstrations, dispersed violently by riot police.

"The President... regrets that the OSCE mission has not been extended," Grybauskaite's spokesman Linas Balsys said. "The president calls on the Belarusian leadership to show confidence in itself and release all detainees."

"If the Belarus leadership is convinced it had won elections by a strong lead, and that it enjoys support of the Belarus people, then why should it be afraid of the opposition (and) why keep those who protested in detention?" he added.

However, Grybauskaite believed a policy of isolating Belarus was not the right answer.

"Isolation of Belarus has not brought the desired results. Actions of Belarusian authorities against those representatives of the society, media, who took part in demonstrations, and arrests and use of physical power, complicate cooperation with Belarus authorities, but not with the Belarusian people," Balsys said.

While the EU United States have condemned the election process and the arrests, neighbouring Russia has supported Lukashenko.

(Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis; editing by David Stamp)


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