Belarus opposition crackdown draws EU ire

(BRUSSELS) - A Belarussian crackdown on opposition protesters drew a rebuke on Thursday from the European Union, just as Minsk attempts to forge a "strategic partnership" with Brussels.

A day after Belarussian police beat and detained protesters marking the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of opposition figureheads, the EU's Swedish presidency slammed the use of force on "peaceful demonstrations."

Protesters including Social Democratic Party chief Nikolai Statkevich were rounded up by riot police for holding up portraits of Viktor Gonchar and businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, who vanished on September 16, 1999.

"The presidency of the European Union notes with concern the crackdown by Belarussian authorities on peaceful demonstrations," it said in a statement.

It also warned Minsk to allow journalists to operate "without interference" amid a call for better democratic and human rights among its population.

Strongman President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus in an authoritarian fashion since 1994 and was once famously dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, although the EU lifted his travel ban last October.

Earlier on Wednesday, Lukashenko told an audience in Lithuania that he wanted to forge a new strategic partnership with the 27-member bloc.



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