U.S. warns Belarus over opposition arrests

MINSK Jan 24 (Reuters) - The United States on Monday urged Belarus to release opposition leaders and activists detained after the disputed December presidential election or face coordinated sanctions from Washington and Brussels.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won a landslide in the December 19 vote, securing a fourth term in office, but the opposition and Western monitors have questioned the official poll results.

Police detained hundreds of people at a protest rally after the vote including four challengers for the presidency. Lukashenko has since accused EU members Poland and Germany of plotting a coup against him.

EU lawmakers urged the bloc's governments this month to impose sanctions on Lukashenko to pressure him into releasing the political detainees and do more to bolster civil society.

On Monday, visiting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state Thomas Melia said Washington would coordinate its sanctions with Brussels.

"The events that took place on December 19 and afterwards were absolutely unacceptable," he told reporters through an interpreter.

"The only way for the Belarussian government to avoid targeted sanctions is to change its policy ... (and) to release those detained and drop the charges against them."

Lukashenko has threatened the West with "tough" counter-measures if sanctions are introduced. Belarus is an important transit nation for Russian oil and gas supplies to Europe.

Melia said he had only been able to meet a low-level Foreign Ministry official in Minsk. "(Our) relationship with Belarus is going through a very tough stage," he said. (Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov)


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