Diplomatic row as 40 Polish activists are detained in Belarus for taking part in 'unauthorised rally'

Up to 40 members of a banned ethnic Polish group were detained in Belarus today on the way to a court hearing on the fate of a cultural centre in the former Soviet Republic, activists have said.

The detentions could have strong repercussions for relations between the neighbouring countries after Poland announced it would deny entry to those responsible for the arrests.

Warsaw has condemned Minsk for what it calls repression of Belarus's sizeable Polish community.

Protest: Belarusian police officers arrest a member of the Union of Poles in Volozhin ahead of a court hearing on the fate of a Polish cultural centre

Police detained several Union of Poles activists on the central square of Volozhin, around 45 miles from the capital Minsk.

The group's leader, Andzelika Borys, said that up to 40 members in total had been seized, most as they tried to reach the city from neighbouring regions.

He said: 'They grabbed us right on the street. It's pure craziness.'

Spokesman for the group, Ihar Bancar, said he and four others were sentenced to five days' administrative detention for taking part in an unauthorised rally. Mr Borys was also fined around $300 (?192), but later released.

He added that those who are still being detained have begun staging a hunger strike.

Activists: Ethnic Poles make up around 5 per cent of the population of Belarus and the state keeps members of the group under surveillance

Ethnic Poles make up around five per cent of the Belarus population of 10 million and many are vociferous proponents of democratic reform.

Since the Union of Poles was banned five years ago, its activists have been kept under surveillance in the authoritarian state.

At the time of the ban, the group split into an opposition faction and one loyal to President Alexander Lukashenko.

Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer said today that Poland has taken steps to block entry to the instigators of the arrests - including members of the Lukashenko-sponsored Union of Poles.

Last week, prime minister Donald Tusk pressed visiting Belarusian foreign minister Sergei Martynov to do more to protect the rights of the Polish minority in Belarus.


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