Belarus poll clampdown criticised by West


BELARUS'S PRESIDENT Alexander Lukashenko has defied the West by rejecting widespread criticism of Sunday's election, the violent police crackdown that followed and the arrest of hundreds of protesters and seven rival candidates in the ballot.

Some 10,000 people marched through the capital Minsk after voting ended and official exit polls showed Mr Lukashenko had won almost 80 per cent of votes, a result opponents claimed revealed blatant fraud.

Riot police wielding truncheons and firing stun grenades repeatedly moved against the protesters, some of whom tried briefly to storm parliament, and dispersed the crowds, arresting 639 people and most of the men who had run against Mr Lukashenko.

"You saw how our law-enforcers behaved. They stood firm and acted exclusively within the bounds of the law. They defended the country and people from barbarism and ruin," Mr Lukashenko said yesterday, calling the protesters "vandals" "beasts" and "hooligans". "There will be no revolution or criminality in Belarus," insisted the former state farm boss, who has crushed most opponents and silenced free media during 16 years in power.

Western states lined up to denounce the election and Mr Lukashenko's handling of the aftermath, having earlier sought to lure "Europe's last dictator" out of Russia's sphere of influence with hints of aid and investment.

"The United States strongly condemns all election-day violence in Belarus," the US embassy in Minsk said. "We are especially concerned over excessive use of force by the authorities, including the beating and detention of several presidential candidates and violence against journalists and civil society activists."

Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, condemned the violence and called for Belarus to "immediately release those arrested". German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said, "It's not acceptable to harass, beat or arrest opposition candidates and their supporters who want to exert their right to freedom of expression."

Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote had been flawed and the police actions heavy handed - a verdict that could prevent Belarus securing hoped-for aid from the EU.

"This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed," said Tony Lloyd, a leader of the OSCE mission. "The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserved better . . . I now expect the government to account for the arrests of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists."

While the West lambasted Mr Lukashenko, Moscow held its peace, and election monitors from Russia and the former Soviet Union found no fault with the ballot. The Kremlin has endured rocky relations with Mr Lukashenko, but values Belarus as a buffer against EU and Nato expansion. "Elections in Belarus are Belarus's domestic matter," said Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. "For us, Belarus, regardless of who leads the country, will always be one of the closest states."


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