Belarus leader says bird flu threat exaggerated

MINSK, March 10 (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko raised doubts on Friday about the threat posed by bird flu, detected in much of eastern Europe but not in his own country, and suggested the danger to people was limited.

Lukashenko is frequently dismissive of campaigns launched by Western countries, many of whom accuse him of cracking down on dissent and undermining democracy.

He has turned down proposed aid from non-government organisations in the West aimed at combating AIDS and tuberculosis -- serious problems in many parts of the former Soviet Union.

"In reality, there is much more idle talk and commercial problems than there is bird flu," the official BelTa news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying on a trip to an industrial plant in southern Belarus.

"Doctors produce statistics saying hundreds of thousands have died from ordinary flu. Seventy-six people have died from bird flu," he said, before adding: "If there is truly a threat, we must be ready for it."

The World Health Organisation says 97 people have died from the virus, mostly in Asia. Millions of birds have been culled and poultry industries have been badly damaged.

Lukashenko, seeking re-election next week, is accused in the West of undermining basic human rights in his ex-Soviet state of 10 million.

Cases of bird flu -- particularly the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain -- have been found in several regions of eastern Europe, including in neighbouring Ukraine and Russia and in Romania.

Measures taken to stop the spread of the virus have included a mass cull of birds, local quarantines and moves to confine domestic birds to buildings.

Belarus had already announced a tender to purchase 8 million doses of vaccine to protect domestic birds in areas where the danger of the virus spreading was considered high. Experts fear further outbreaks in spring, when migratory birds return north.