EU demands release of Belarus opposition leader

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has demanded the release of a Belarussian opposition leader arrested during a rally to protest against last week's election victory of President Alexander Lukashenko, EU president Austria said.

"The EU Presidency is appalled by the violence used against demonstrators by the Belarussian authorities," Austria said in a statement issued late on Saturday on behalf of the 25-nation bloc. Austria holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency until the end of June.

"It expresses serious concern about the arrest of demonstrators and members of the democratic opposition, including presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, and demands their immediate release," the statement said.

Kozulin, along with main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, has been leading days of rallies in Belarus against what they say was election fraud in the poll which gave Lukashenko an overwhelming victory.

Police in riot gear broke up a rally on Friday and took away hundreds of protesters in trucks. Protesters said Kozulin was pulled out of a car by police and taken away after a rally on Saturday.

Demonstrators are demanding a re-run of the poll, which returned to power for five years a president accused in the West of pursuing Soviet-style policies, closing down the media and cracking down on rivals.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner also demanded that Belarus release members of the opposition.

"I urge the Belarussian government to adhere to the rules of democracy," Ferrero-Waldner was quoted as saying by German newspaper Die Welt in a preview of its Monday edition.

"If the Belarussian government does not show remorse, visa bans will probably be sharpened. In concrete terms, that means that those responsible will not be able to travel to EU member states. Foreign assets of Belarussian lawmakers could also be frozen. It's important that sanctions do not hurt the people."

The European Union agreed on Friday to impose sanctions, including a visa ban, on several Belarus leaders, including Lukashenko, over the election it condemned as flawed.

International observers said the vote was neither free nor fair.