Belarus opposition head invited to Europe

By Dmitry Solovyov

Minsk - Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko sank deeper into international isolation on Friday as his main opponent in a disputed presidential election was invited to put his case in European capitals.

Belarus, described by Washington as Europe's last dictatorship, hit back at its critics by recalling its ambassador to European Union member Poland and accusing Warsaw of meddling in its internal affairs.

Alexander Milinkevich came a distant second to Lukashenko in the election on March 19 which was judged unfair by Western observers. The result triggered protests against Lukashenko's rule unprecedented in the tightly controlled ex-Soviet state.

'Invitations are a stinging rebuke for Lukashenko'

Milinkevich said he would have talks in Vienna on Monday with EU president Austria, go to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on April 5-6 and attend a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on April 10.

The invitations are a stinging rebuke for Lukashenko, who dismisses Milinkevich as a troublemaker with no support at home.

Prosecutors have threatened Milinkevich with up to 15 days in prison for violating public order, similar to sentences passed on hundreds of other protesters.

Lukashenko is supported by Russia and is popular with millions of voters who credit him with ensuring stability when other former Soviet states have descended into chaos.

"None of us (in the opposition) has the slightest doubt that this regime won't last for another five years," Milinkevich told a news briefing. "I don't want to be a prophet, but it will fall much earlier."

"Such foreign trips are extremely important ... Democratic states are now forming a consolidated position on Belarus," he said after chairing an opposition strategy meeting.

"We want to see the creation of a whole front of states which will support democracy in Belarus."

Lukashenko postponed his inauguration ceremony this week, saying he had no space in his timetable. He has looked strained in brief public appearances since the vote and his opponents say he is rattled by the scale of the protests.

The Foreign Ministry in Minsk said it had recalled its ambassador in Warsaw for consultations and also summoned the Polish charge d'affaires in Minsk to complain about what it called unprecedented Polish interference.

Belarus's neighbour Poland has joined other EU nations and Washington in demanding the release of opposition activists jailed after police broke up their protests over the vote.

A day earlier, Milinkevich had talks in Warsaw with Polish President Lech Kaczynski, winning pledges that Poland would act as Belarus's advocate with the EU.

A week of protests led by Milinkevich gathered 10 000 people at its peak. Police took no action for several days, but dispersed a march on a detention centre, arresting hundreds.

Some, released on Friday, told Reuters they had been beaten by police when they were arrested. Officials deny using excessive force.

In Brussels, the 26-nation NATO issued a statement deploring the use of force against protesters and saying it would have no dealings with officials involved in repression. "NATO will pursue a policy focused on encouraging reform," it said.

In Geneva, the International Labour Organisation said it feared trade union rights were being denied.

The pressure on Lukashenko was increased further by an unexpected source on Thursday when Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom said from 2007 it would end Minsk's hefty discounts for gas supplies.

(Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk and Mark John in Brussels)