EU concerned over reports of disruption in Belarusian presidential race

BRUSSELS, March 2 (Xinhuanet) -- The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU), expressed concern on Thursday over reports of disruption in Belarus' presidential race.

"The commission is deeply worried by press reports of serious violations of the campaigning rights of the election candidates in Belarus in the run up to the March 19 presidential election," said EU commissioner for external relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

"In particular we are concerned by reports of the detention today of Aleksander Kozulin, one of the four registered candidates in the presidential race, less than three weeks before the election date. If confirmed, this would be a serious development."

She asked the Belarusian government for prompt clarification of the situation and the immediate release of the candidate if he was indeed arrested.

She said the European Commission has consistently encouraged the Belarusian authorities to ensure equal campaigning rights to all candidates.

The interim report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) electoral monitoring mission of March1 points to a number of serious shortcomings such as "detention of campaign activists, searches of campaign offices, confiscation of campaign materials and interruption of campaign meetings," said the commissioner.

She said the European Commission will continue to watch the elections "extremely closely" and that the EU is ready to take further restrictive measures against the responsible individuals if the elections are not conducted in a democratic manner.

An EU travel ban is in place for several Belarusian officials, who were alleged to be responsible for the October 2004 elections and referendum