Belarus accuses West over unrest

From correspondents in Minsk

BELARUS accused the West today of trying to foment unrest on its streets, while opposition leaders in the ex-Soviet state traded accusations over the failure of a protest broken up by police at the weekend.

Belarus's foreign ministry said the European Union and the United States were "on the verge of anti-Belarussian hysteria" in criticising the police action and arrests.

Opposition leaders Alexander Kozulin and Alexander Milinkevich called supporters onto the streets after losing a presidential poll, which gave Alexander Lukashenko 83 per cent of the vote. The European Union and Washington said the election was neither free nor fair, while Moscow backs the president.

Mr Kozulin was detained during the protest. The EU demanded veteran leader Mr Lukashenko release him and condemned the dispersal of a march that followed a city centre rally.

"It is self-evident to objective observers that the situation in Belarus is absolutely calm," a Foreign Ministry statement said. "We urge the European Union and the United States to stop attempts to destabilise the country from abroad."

It said police had demonstrated "calm and patience" and moved in to disperse protesters only after many had headed for a pre-trial detention centre at Mr Kozulin's urging.

The opposition, which Mr Lukashenko said is trying to raise a pro-Western rebellion in the country, has rallied up to 10,000 supporters over the last week - protests unmatched in recent years in a country ruled with a Soviet-style authoritarian hand.

But yesterday's march on the detention centre, where opposition activists are held, exposed divisions in the anti-Lukashenko front that may hearten Mr Lukashenko.

Mr Milinkevich accused Mr Kozulin of foolhardiness in leading the march after dispersal of the rally.

Mr Kozulin's headquarters hit back angrily today, calling Mr Milinkevich "a so-called democrat... who was jealous of Kozulin during the peaceful protests since March 19, and did not have the strength to lead despite the money, publicity and support from Europe and the United States".

"Milinkevich simply acted as a coward," it said.

Mr Milinkevich, who polled six per cent in the polls, said: "Our views differ, but we are not enemies."

The EU, which sees Mr Lukashenko's Belarus as a last bastion of Soviet-style political and economic rule, denounced yesterday's police action.

"The EU Presidency is appalled by the violence used against demonstrators by the Belarussian authorities," Austria said in a statement issued late yesterday on behalf of the bloc.

"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."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he wanted to invite Mr Milinkevich to a meeting of EU foreign ministers next month.

Poland's foreign ministry said a former ambassador to Belarus and a Polish journalist had been detained in an earlier police swoop on Saturday and were beaten by police.

About 50 young people from a pro-Lukashenko youth body chanted anti-American slogans in front of the US embassy in central Minsk today in a clearly orchestrated action, while police did not interfere, an independent journalist said.

"Down with the hirelings paid from abroad. Lukashenko is the real power here," said one of the posters they held.