Donors pledge $120 million aid for Belarus opposition

AFP - Belarussian opposition groups won pledges of 87 million euros ($120 million) from donor nations Wednesday at a conference organised amid moves to put the squeeze on President Alexander Lukashenko.

"Summing up, I can say there will be 87 million euros in aid, and most of these are new resources," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told reporters after the gathering ended.

The 36-nation "Solidarity with Belarus" conference was called by Poland, Belarus's neighbour and a leader in the European Union's drive to get tough with Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state since 1994.

"Perhaps the examples of Mr Ben Ali, Mr Mubarak and others will make President Lukashenko reflect that the path he has chosen is not the best one for himself personally," Sikorski said, referring to the ousted Tunisian leader and Egypt's embattled president.

The meeting was the first of its kind to focus on bolstering financial support for Belarussian NGOs, the independent media, students and others who have fallen foul of the regime.

It marked a response to mass arrests in the wake of Lukashenko's December 19 election for a fourth term, which has been disputed by the opposition and the West.

"This is a very important gesture of solidarity and it says to us 'You are not left alone in the face of this horror,'" Belarussian campaigner Eva Neklyayeva said in Warsaw.

Her father Vladimir Neklyayev was arrested after standing against Lukashenko in the election, and was Saturday placed under house arrest after being released from prison.

Other Lukashenko opponents remain behind bars, however.

"We call for the release of all those arrested, and that they are cleared of all allegations," top EU official Stefan Fule said in Warsaw.

Fule, the member of the EU's executive European Commission responsible for ties with the bloc's neighbours, told the conference that Brussels planned to quadruple its aid to 15.6 million euros, over 2011-2013.

"As a clear demonstration of our unequivocal support to civil society in these difficult times, we will increase our funding," he said.

"With these measures, we are seeking to avoid isolating the Belarussian population. I believe we have an important responsibility in this regard."

He said 1.7 million euros would be released urgently to help the families of detainees.

Poland announced it was doubling its aid to groups including the independent media, earmarking some 10 million euros.

The funds cover the operating costs of the Warsaw-based Belast TV, the only Belarussian-language station broadcasting in Belarus which is not controlled by the authorities there.

US officials said Washington was increasing aid by a third to 15 million dollars, Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt announced seven million euros for independent Belarussian media, and Germany pledged 6.6 million euros.

The Warsaw meeting came just days after the EU and United States slapped a new raft of sanctions -- including a travel ban and asset freeze -- on Lukashenko and 157 associates.

Belarus has been defiant, with its foreign ministry on Tuesday calling the moves against its leaders "unjustified" and threatening to take reciprocal steps.

Western pressure on Lukashenko, after previous attempts to coax him into improving ties, has brought a thaw in his on-off relationship with Russia.

In Moscow Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that while the post-poll crackdown had been "unacceptable", Western sanctions were "politically-motivated."

Some 200 representatives from all 27 EU member nations, Canada, the United States, EU candidates Croatia and Macedonia, plus ex-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine attended the fundraising drive.


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