Belarus arrests heads of Polish group


The Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) - Belarusian police arrested two leaders of an ethnic Polish cultural group on Tuesday after seizing the group's headquarters, raising already heightened tensions between the neighboring countries.

The former president and vice-chief of the Union of Poles were arrested in the western Belarusian city of Grodno, according to Angelica Boris, head of the group representing ethnic Poles.

Poland's Foreign Ministry declined comment on the arrests. Last week, it recalled its ambassador from the capital, Minsk, in protest of what it called heavy-handed tactics against the Polish community.

Warsaw has been pushing for democratic reforms in Belarus, angering the autocratic regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. The former Soviet republic's minority Polish community has complained of being harassed in a government crackdown.

The former president of the cultural organization, Tadeusz Gawin, was sentenced to 15 days in jail for publishing a manifesto against government attempts to wrest control of the organization.

Police also remained outside the group's headquarters for a fifth day on Tuesday. Police seized the building last week, temporarily detaining several of the organization's leaders.

The Belarusian ambassador in Warsaw said he had been urged by his government to ease the friction that has been worsening over the last weeks.

"The atmosphere is very tense," Pavel Latushka was quoted saying in Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. "The foreign minister recommended that ... I work to overcome the crisis, to enter into dialogue with the Polish authorities."

Authorities in Minsk are worried about the ethnic Polish minority of about 500,000 - or 5 percent of the population - concentrated in Western Belarus. Lukashenko has accused them of trying to foment revolution ahead of elections next year.

The State Department on Tuesday condemned the Belarusian government's actions, with its spokesman Tom Casey saying they "are part of a continuing pattern of harassment against those seeking to peacefully express their views."

Casey said that in the past two months, Belarus has closed 80 percent of the local offices of three major parties, jailed activists, and levied massive fines against the few remaining independent newspapers.