Belarus detains 40 ethnic Polish activists

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian authorities detained 40 ethnic Polish activists on Monday, days after Warsaw recalled its envoy to protest against an earlier crackdown on the same organisation, one of those arrested said.

The detentions could hurt authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's efforts to present a kinder face to the West.

Tensions have periodically erupted between Minsk and Warsaw over Belarus's treatment of its large Polish minority, which numbers some 400,000 people in a country of 10 million.

Police were holding the leaders of the opposition wing of the country's Union of Poles in Minsk and about 40 activists, said Andrzej Poczobut, one of those who was being held.

"40 people were arrested," Poczobut said by telephone. Neither the Interior or Foreign Ministry in Minsk would comment when contacted by Reuters.

On Feb. 9, Belarussian police took control of a building used by the Union of Poles in the town of Ivenets, prompting criticism from Poland's president and prime minister.

Polish newspapers said Belarussian police, acting on a prosecutor's orders, used "brutal force" to empty the building.

The Union of Poles split five years ago into two factions, one loyal to Lukashenko's government and the other critical.

Long ostracised by the West for the suppression of dissent and a lack of democracy in Belarus, Lukashenko has begun to court the European Union with steps such as freeing political prisoners, apparently hoping to decrease his country's economic dependence on Russia.

Relations with Poland and other EU-member neighbours have generally improved in the past year but Western governments stress Lukashenko must take stronger steps toward democracy and human rights guarantees.

Belarussian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov said on Friday that Poles were treated fairly by Minsk.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, writing by Conor Sweeney; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman)


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