Belarus releases detained presidential candidate

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus freed Monday one of five opposition presidential candidates it has held since a violent crackdown on demonstrators followed an election two weeks ago.

Police said they expected soon to release most of the remaining detainees held since they broke up protest demonstrations on the night of the December 19 election. About 200 out of 650 detainees are thought to still be jailed.

The election gave President Alexander Lukashenko, 56, a fourth term in office. The detention of opposition leaders and the violent police crackdown drew criticism from the European Union and United States, while Russia has supported Lukashenko.

Twenty-two opposition activists, including the five detained presidential candidates, were charged last week with disorder following the election-night protests.

The Christian Democratic Party said its leader and presidential candidate, Vitaly Rymashevsky, had been released by the KGB security service after submitting "a written explanation to Lukashenko." It gave no further details.

The Belarussian General Prosecutor's office said the other four candidates were "healthy." Relatives have complained of their conditions.

Belarus decided last week to shut down operations of a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which strongly criticized the election.

Lithuania, a neighbor which took over the OSCE's rotating presidency on January 1, has urged Belarus to release the remaining four candidates and is trying to persuade Minsk to reopen the OSCE office, Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said.

Lukashenko has made overtures to 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.

(Reporting by Andrey Makhovsky; additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Vilnius; Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow; Editing by Peter Graff)


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