EU to quadruple aid to Belarusian civil society (2nd Lead)

Warsaw - The European Commission will increase four-fold its aid to Belarus in order to support human rights and strengthen the country's civil society, European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said Wednesday at a donors' conference in the Polish capital.

Aid to Belarus will increase to 15.6 million euros (21.59 million dollars) from the current 4 million euros, he said.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also vowed that his country would donate some 7 million euros. Other pledges came from Romania, Great Britain and Denmark.

The meeting came in the wake of a crackdown on anti-government demonstrators following a disputed December presidential vote. Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko won re-election to a fourth term.

Fule said the Warsaw forum was a chance to send a strong signal of support in difficult times and to prevent Belarus from becoming isolated from the rest of Europe. He said most of the European Union aid would go to non-governmental organizations, independent media and students.

Besides offering financial assistance, Fule said, EU countries should waive or reduce the fees for visas to enable ordinary Belarusians to travel more easily around the continent.

Representatives from some 40 countries are participating in the conference, organized by Poland. It includes government officials and activists from the EU, the United States, Canada and Eastern Europe.

'Belarusian society has confirmed its European aspirations and the readiness to build democracy,' Poland's Interior Ministry said in statement. 'It is now the international community's responsibility to respond to that message.'

Participating nations were to discuss financial aid to civil society as well as exchanges and scholarships for youth kicked out of Belarusian schools.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski highlighted his country's leading role in supporting Belarusian democracy.

'There is no country doing more for Belarus than Poland,' Sikorski told TVP1 Wednesday, citing the country's support for independent Belarusian media and a scholarship programme.

In Poland, some 100 schools have declared their willingness to take students from Belarus. Warsaw has already pledged to send some 40 million zloty in aid this year, which will be used to finance education and independent media.

EU ministers on Monday reinstated a suspended travel ban on Lukashenko and other top Belarusian officials. The US has also announced new travel and financial sanctions.

Lukashenko last month accused Poland and Germany of planning a coup against him and ordering their secret services to attempt to remove him from power.


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