EU and US to put sanctions on Belarus as protesters held

By Neil Buckley in Moscow and Daniel Dombey in Brussels

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus' authoritarian president, was last night facing co-ordinated sanctions from the European Union and the US, hours after riot police wielding batons arrested 200 people staging a peaceful protest in the capital, Minsk, over Sunday's disputed elections.

EU leaders at a summit in Brussels and the White House both indicated they would impose visa bans on senior officials from the former Soviet republic, including Mr Lukashenko himself. They also planned financial sanctions, such as freezes on bank accounts abroad.

The tough EU and US response set them sharply at odds with Russia. Moscow has accepted the election results and congratulated Mr Lukashenko on winning a third five-year presidential term with an official 82.6 per cent of the vote, on a 92 per cent turnout.

Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, yesterday accused the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe - which described the elections as severely flawed - of delivering a biased verdict and playing an "inflammatory role" in Belarus. The OSCE insisted it had given an "impartial, balanced picture of the entire election process".

In Minsk, Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, vowed to go ahead with a peaceful rally planned for today, anniversary of the start of an earlier short-lived period of independence for Belarus in 1918.

It was unclear, however, how many supporters would attend and whether the authorities would allow the rally to take place.

Several thousand opposition supporters have gathered on Minsk's central October Square each evening since last Sunday. But police at about 3am yesterday stormed a small colony of tents demonstrators had erected on the square in a round-the-clock protest, bundling their occupants into trucks.

The EU and US both condemned the crackdown, calling on the Belarusan authorities to release those arrested and refrain from action against any peaceful protest today.

Brussels and Washington have endorsed the findings of the 500-strong OSCE monitoring mission which concluded that last Sunday's election was not free and fair, and took place in a "climate of intimidation".

"Lukashenko will be banned from travelling to the EU," said Stefan Meller, foreign minister of Poland, which championed EU sanctions together with Lithuania - both neighbours of Belarus. He added that the new visa ban would apply to "many, many officials", and significantly broaden an existing ban imposed in 2004 on six lower-level Belarusan officials.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the US planned "parallel steps involving targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions".