EU demands release of Belarus protesters

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Monday, 27 March: 12.40 CET) - The EU is demanding the immediate release of opposition figures arrested durign weekend protests in commemorating the country's 1918 declaration of independence and denoucning 19 March elections that saw long-time ruler Aleksandar Lukashenko win a third term in office.

Opposition leader and presidential candidate Aleksandar Kozulin was arrested on Saturday in the capital, Minsk, during protests he was leading towards the main police station.

It is unclear where he is being held, but media reports said he faced criminal charges, including hooliganism, and if convicted could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.

As many as 100 other protesters were arrested on Saturday, and news agencies said police beat men and women with batons, putting three of them in critical condition.

Austria, which holds the EU presidency, said it was "appalled by the violence used against demonstrators by the Belarussian authorities".

EU officials will this week begin to flesh out the practicalities of sanctions against Belarus, announced on Friday at a summit of EU foreign ministers.

Belarusian officials have warned the EU and US to refrain from interfering in the country's internal matters.

The situation in Belarus has been tense since the 19 March presidential eletions, in which Lukashenko was over 82 per cent of the vote, according to elections officials. Opposition forces and Western governments have condemned the vote as fraudulent.

The police crackdown began in earnest on Friday, when security forces broke up a tent encampment in October Square and arrested 200 people.

In the meantime, another opposition leader and presidential candidate, Aleksandar Milinkevich, has pledged further protests. (By ISN Security Watch staff, EU Observer, BBC, RFE/RL)