EU slams Belarusian arrests

The EU has condemned the fresh wave of arrests of opposition leaders in Belarus.

On Wednesday a prominent member of the opposition front, Anatoly Lebedko was arrested along with other members of his party.

Lebedko's capture is the latest in a series of arrests of aides and supporters of Aleksander Milinkevich - the main challenger to president Lukashenko in next week's elections.

"Such arrests have no place in free and fair elections," EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner declared on Thursday.

"I call again on the Belarusian authorities to release immediately those opposition members who are currently still detained."

The commission's censure follows a decision by MEPs to abandon a trip to Belarus to monitor the presidential election.

Members of the European parliament delegation were refused visas and had to cancel the mission.

"The presence of parliamentary delegations makes a valuable contribution to the evaluation of any election process and is crucial to support democracy building," Ferrero-Waldner added.

Voting in presidential elections in the former soviet republic got underway ahead of schedule on Tuesday.

The voting had been officially set for Sunday and opposition groups fear early voting is an opportunity for the president to rig the poll.

Since the election of president Lukashenko in 1994 - the man the Washington describes as "Europe's last dictator" - civil rights have been progressively eroded.

Independent media and civil society groups struggle to survive under intense government pressure.

"Three days before the election, the Belarusian authorities should recall that the EU has made clear it stands ready to take further appropriate measures against the responsible individuals, if the elections are not conducted in a democratic manner," the external relations commissioner warned.

Josep Borrell, president of the European parliament echoed the commission's condemnation.

"I once more call on the Belarusian authorities to respect international standards and comply with their undertaking, as entered into with the OSCE and the UN, to guarantee the equal rights of all candidates taking part in the campaign," he said in a statement.