New U.S. ambassador says Washington wants to be "reliable friend" to Belarus

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus The new U.S. ambassador to Belarus said Monday that Washington wants to be a friend to Belarus, despite harsh criticism of its leader, while President Alexander Lukashenko said he is bolstering relations with countries from Cuba to China in an effort to counter American clout.

"Several days before my departure to Minsk, representatives of the Bush administration at the highest level underlined that the United States will be a reliable friend of Belarus, will stand with Belarus while Belarusians work out how to define the future of their beautiful country," Karen Stewart told reporters upon arrival in Minsk.

The United States in recent years has heavily criticized the government of authoritarian President Lukashenko, characterizing him as Europe's last dictator.

This year, following elections denounced as manipulated that gave Lukashenko a new term in office, Washington imposed sanctions, including freezing the assets of the president and other senior officials.

Lukashenko, after returning from a Nonaligned Movement summit that brought him together with other U.S. antagonists, said that "Belarus today is creating a so-called 'external arc' in its foreign policy. It leads from Cuba through the countries of Latin America, Africa, the Persian Gulf, Iran, China, Vietnam, Malaysia."

"The United Nations should serve the interests of all states, not just the United States of America," he told journalists. "Together we are capable of not allowing the (U.N.) to be used as an instrument of settling scores with countries conducting independent policy."

Lukashenko reiterated his accusation that the United States is seeking his ouster and said it would not happen. "Belarusians are the masters on their land and will not tolerate forceful pressure," he said.

Lukashenko, who has courted other countries whose relations with the United States are marked largely by animosity, recently hosted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

The head of Lukashenko's Security Council, who visited Venezuela earlier this month, said Monday that Belarus and Venezuela have reached agreements on arms and military technology sales that will bring Belarus more than US$1 billion (?800 billion).

Security Council Secretary Viktor Sheiman, speaking on television, did not say what weapons the deals involved, but said they would keep Belarusian factories busy for years. Belarus produces few of its own weapons but has plants that modernize Soviet-era weapons and materiel, including tanks.

A former defense minister, Pavel Kozlovsky, expressed doubt that Belarus has US$1 billion worth of weapons to sell and suggested it could act as a middleman for selling Russian-produced arms to Venezuela.

Sheiman also said Belarus had the right to extract 10 million tons of Venezuelan oil a year, and could sell it to the United States.

After Chavez visited Belarus in July, the Venezuelan government said he had struck a deal with Lukashenko to form a joint venture to explore for and extract oil, and Chavez also proposed that Venezuela could supply Belarus with crude to refine and sell in exchange for houses and technology for the South American country.