Isolated Belarus president sworn in for fourth term

President Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in for a fourth term on Friday, in a lavish ceremony boycotted by the West over a crackdown on the Belarus opposition after his disputed election victory.

During his 16-year rule, Lukashenko -- once famously described by Washington as Europe's last dictator -- has imprisoned some of the opposition's most prominent figures in an unprecedented crackdown after election protests.

In his oath taking at the immense Palace of the Republic in Minsk, Lukashenko pledged to serve the Belarussian people and also "respect and preserve the rights and freedom of people and citizens."

Ahead of the highly choreographed ceremony, Lukashenko was driven through the eerily deserted streets of Minsk in a convoy headed by a fleet of nine motorcycles.

He was accompanied into the Palace of the Republic by his extra-marital son Kolya, wearing a suit but dwarfed by his giant father. The boy has in the last months been a constant presence at state events with the president.

Tens of thousands of people had protested on election night in Minsk on December 19 against what they perceived as unfair elections that gave the ice hockey-mad strongman a landslide victory.

More than 600 people were detained. Belarus is still holding four of the candidates who stood against Lukashenko and some of the country's leading liberal journalists and activists.

The city centre was virtually deserted ahead of the inauguration although the authorities put out flags and hung a gigantic banner reading "For a Strong and Flourishing Belarus!".

But no ambassadors from the 27-nation European Union were present at the ceremony, choosing instead to quit the country for the day, a EU spokeswoman said.

"The European Union head of delegation as well as ambassadors from EU member states will not participate at the inauguration," said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

"They are attending an event in Lithuania," she told AFP.

No prominent foreign leader was present either, although Belarussian officials have sought to explain this away by saying such invitations are not part of the country's tradition.

Since polling day relations between the European Union and Belarus have gone into deep freeze with some EU ministers suggesting it was a waste of time even trying to do deal with Lukashenko.

On the last day of 2010, Belarus also ordered the closure of the Minsk office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in an apparent response to the transatlantic security group's stinging criticism of its presidential polls.

The European Union said on Wednesday it would reinstate a travel ban on Lukashenko if he fails to release his jailed opponents. Washington is also exploring a range of possible sanctions.

Unlike the United States and Europe, Russia has been less critical of what it said was its neighbour's "internal affair" and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hosted his Belarussian counterpart on Thursday.

The mercurial Lukashenko has ruled the state of 10 million that lies between three EU states and Russia since 1994. He has long promoted a folksy, populist image at home and likes to be known as "batka" (dad).

Fond of being photographed playing macho sports, he has raised eyebrows in recent years by frequently appearing in public with his young extra-marital son Kolya and even introducing him to Pope Benedict XI.


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