Amid protests, EU backs new Belarus sanctions

Government cracks down on opposition protesters, detains dozens

BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Union leaders slapped expanded sanctions on Belarus on Friday and condemned a crackdown against opposition protesters in Minsk.

The 25 European leaders said the March 19 presidential vote that returned President Alexander Lukashenko to office was "fundamentally flawed," adding that they would "take restrictive measures against those ... responsible for the violation of international electoral standards."

They called Belarus a "sad exception ... on a continent of open and democratic societies."

The EU leaders lent their support to opposition groups in Belarus fighting for democratic reforms. "Their continuing and brave efforts to advance the cause of democracy in exceptionally difficult circumstances deserve our full recognition and support," they said.

EU officials say new sanctions against Belarus will probably include a travel ban against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Police detained hundreds of demonstrators early Friday who had spent a fourth night in a central square to protest Lukashenko's election victory.

The EU has already declared that the presidential vote, which gave Lukashenko a third consecutive term, was not free and fair and violated international democratic norms.

No economic sanctions are foreseen, officials have said, adding they want to focus their attention on political leaders rather than punishing Belarusians.

Dozens arrested

The arrests in Minsk early Friday came after a half dozen large police buses and 75 helmeted riot police with clubs pulled up to Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk about 3 a.m.

The police stood around for a few minutes and then barged into the tent camp filled with protesters.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene said they wrestled about 40 to 50 of the demonstrators, who were resisting, into buses. The rest of the approximately 200 demonstrators were taken into custody without apparent resistance.

As police rushed forward to begin seizing demonstrators, a man who was apparently heading the operation said, "I told you not to beat them," according to a local journalist who gave her name as Olga. Another journalist said she saw police kick a few demonstrators who fell as they were being hustled onto the bus.

By the end of the 10- to 15-minute operation, all of the protesters had been taken away, leaving only their tents, some gear and garbage. City workers soon came and began throwing the remains of the camp into truck beds, with two bulldozers that also dumped debris into the trucks. A stray dog wandered in during the operation was scrounging for food in what was left of the camp.

Police had been detaining opposition supporters and would-be protesters away from the square, but Friday's arrests marked the first time they had tried to forcefully eject the demonstrators en masse.

'Authorities are destroying freedom'

"The authorities are destroying freedom, truth and justice. There was only enough democracy for three days and this shows the essence of the regime that has been established in Belarus," opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told The Associated Press.

Their action followed his warning Thursday that increased persecution would only strengthen protests against the authoritarian government.

"The people on the square were courageous," Milinkevich said, speaking while on his way to a jail where detainees were taken. "They got up off their knees and together with them all of Belarus stood up."

This week's protests over the official figures giving a landslide win to Lukashenko have consistently attracted thousands nightly - and more than 10,000 at the first one Sunday - an exceptional number in the tightly controlled former Soviet nation which has a history of swift, violent police dispersal of small rallies. A core of about 200 has held the square overnight.

But the numbers have been far to small to pose a real threat to the hardline Belarusian leader's rule.