EU Summit EU to sanction Belarus leader after opposition arrests

BRUSSELS (AFX) - European Union leaders have agreed to sanction Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko following last weekend's widely-condemned elections and the arrest of opposition protestors overnight.

In conclusions from an EU summit, the leaders 'decided to take restrictive measures against those responsible for violations of international electoral standards, including President Lukashenko'.

The sanctions will be mainly travel bans -- six such visa restrictions are currently in place on Belarus officials -- but the leaders could consider freezing the assets of certain individuals, EU officials said.

Belarus quashed an unprecedented protest against Lukashenko, smashing a tent camp in central Minsk and arresting hundreds of young opposition activists, days after the veteran hardline president was returned to power.

As they arrived for the summit in Brussels, the leaders condemned with one voice developments in the former Soviet state, a close ally of Russia, and demanded that the authorities respect the protestors' freedom to assemble.

'We urge the Belarus authorities to respect the freedom of assembly and to release the prisoners,' said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country currently holds the EU presidency.

The Belgian presidency of the leading Western election-monitoring body, the OSCE, also called on the regime to halt the 'persecution' of opposition activists and release those arrested.

'The authorities must immediately end the persecution of their opponents,' the head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, said in a statement.

Apart from condemning the crackdown in Minsk, the leaders also said Belarus's giant neighbour and ally Russia had to be engaged.

'We need to be more firm... and demonstrate that we are united inside the European Union about how we look at the relations with Belarus but also with Russia,' said Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson.

'We have to give all possible support to the democratic forces inside the country.'

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said: 'I think what happened last night is really very, very negative. Young people on the street, they have the right to protest, to make really known their opinion about this regime.'

'We have to be tough, but we also have to speak with our Russian friends. That is the most important, I think,' he told reporters.

Plassnik refused to mention Russia by name, but her message was clear: 'As we said, we will continue to consult with our international partners ... this is enough.'

The opposition protests began after Lukashenko was swept back into power in Sunday's presidential election -- a vote widely condemned as unfair and slammed by the European Union this week.

'On a continent of open and democratic societies, Belarus is a sad exception,' the leaders noted again in their conclusions.

The OSCE, in its statement, concurred: 'It is unacceptable that people be kept in detention because they were trying to have their right to assemble and express their opinions in a peaceful way respected.'

'In the light of these events, I insist that the Belarus authorities release the people arrested in the framework of these activities,' De Gucht said.

He urged the authorities to 'show restraint and to refrain from using any repressive measures'.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the OSCE of instigating tensions over the presidential election in Belarus.

'Unfortunately, we saw a situation where the OSCE observer mission began talking about illegitimacy well ahead of the elections, with quite a bit of taking sides, thus playing a role of instigator,' he said.