Lukashenko spurns EU invitation

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko will not attend an EU summit in Prague next Thursday, despite an invitation from the Czech Republic.

"Mr Lukashenko is not on the list of participants - the deadline has already gone," the Czech prime minister's spokesman told the BBC on Friday.

The Czechs, who hold the EU presidency, will host an "Eastern Partnership" summit with six former Soviet states.

The EU's relations with Mr Lukashenko have been frosty until recently.

For years, EU member states and the United States have criticised him for authoritarian methods, such as muzzling the press and jailing dissidents.

But the EU has stepped up diplomatic contacts with Belarus since the authorities in Minsk released political prisoners last year. The EU also suspended a travel ban it had imposed on Mr Lukashenko and other top Belarussian officials.

The Czech government spokesman, Jiri Potuznik, said it was "up to the Belarus government to decide who would represent it" in Prague and that the participating countries were "supposed to send their number one or two".

He said he could not confirm who Belarus would send, but made it clear that it would not be Mr Lukashenko.

The EU wants to develop closer energy and trade links with Belarus and five other ex-Soviet states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Mr Lukashenko received a personal invitation last month from Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in Minsk.

On Monday, the Belarus leader met Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican on his first official visit to Western Europe since 1995.



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