US freezes Belarussian leader's financial assets

By Rupert Cornwell

The United States has announced new sanctions against the authoritarian regime in Belarus, including a freeze on financial assets held here by President Alexander Lukashenko and other senior government officials.

Mr Lukashenko, whose autocratic ways have long incensed Washington and its European allies, has been added to the Treasury Department's list of "specially designated nationals". This means that any assets he holds here will automatically be blocked, and US citizens are prohibited from having any dealings with him.

Other officials being targeted by Washington include the Minister of Justice, Mr Lukashenko's national security adviser, the Interior Minister, the chief of the Belarus KGB, the head of the national election commission, and the head of state television and radio. Mr Lukashenko has held absolute power in Belarus since 1994. His most recent election victory on 19 March has been described as a fraud by Western governments. The Bush administration has described him as "Europe's last dictator", and Belarus features in the US list of "outposts of tyranny'', along with the likes of Zimbabwe, Burma and Cuba.

The measure was foreshadowed by the White House after the March vote, when it linked the Lukashenko government with the murders of a pro-democracy businessman and an independent journalist.

Even before yesterday's move, Washington and the European Union had imposed some travel restrictions on Mr Lukashenko and his colleagues.

"What are the grounds for these restrictions?" he asked angrily last month. "Is there some international court ruling that we are criminal?"