EU laments intimidation in Belarus vote, indicates sanctions

BRUSSELS, March 20 (Xinhuanet) -- The European Union (EU) said on Monday that the presidential election in Belarus was marred by a "climate of intimidation" and indicated to boost sanctions against Minsk.

Ursula Plassnik, the Foreign Minister of Austria which currently holds the EU presidency, said at a press conference after EU foreign ministers meeting that the EU "agrees with the OSCE's assessment," which described the vote as "not free and fair."

She indicated that the EU is still "reflecting" on an "adequateresponse," adding that further discussions "will include possibility of restrictive sanctions to those responsible."

"We have started a discussion on possible restrictive measures," she said.

According to diplomats, the foreign ministers meeting revealed a rift particularly between "new" and "old" member states on how to react to events in Belarus.

New member states pressed for an immediate political response by the bloc after the assessment of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The extension of the existing visa ban to Belarus officials wasone idea proposed, as well as a fresh invitation for opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich to visit Brussels.

But foreign ministers failed to issue a declaration with immediate sanctions, with "old" member states warning of further isolation of Minsk and increased suffering of the Belarusian population.

"The actions need to be targeted against those responsible for that. We don't want to turn our backs on the people of Belarus, wedon't want to abandon them," EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told the news conference.

The EU had warned ahead of the election in the former Soviet republic that it could widen diplomatic sanctions against Minsk, notably including a visa ban on key Belarus leaders, if it was notsatisfied with the ballot.

According to the final results from the Central Election Commission in Minsk, the incumbent Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenka, has won a third term in office with 82.6 percent of all votes in the 19 March election. His main opponent, Alexander Milinkevich, gained only 6 percent of the votes.

The opposition claimed that the result was rigged and called for the election to be annulled.

However, a declaration by a grouping of former Soviet states called the Commonwealth of Independent States said that an open and honest vote was held.