By JAMES MARSON
The Obama administration and the European Union said Thursday they would review ties with Belarus as President Alexander Lukashenko stepped up his crackdown on opponents who protested alleged vote fraud in his landslide re-election.
Five presidential candidates and 14 other leading opposition activists detained since Sunday's election were formally placed under arrest Thursday. They could face charges of organizing disturbances and go to prison for up to 15 years for their role in the massive street protests that erupted in Minsk, the Belarussian capital, after the polls closed, Minsk police said.
Western officials in recent years had sought to coax the authoritarian Mr. Lukashenko to relax his 16-year grip on Belarus, a former Soviet state of 9.5 million people. Hoping to ease its dependence on Russia and turn the country into a buffer against Russian influence in Eastern Europe, some European officials had offered Belarus as much as $3.5 billion in economic aid if Sunday's election was judged to be fair.
The West's position hardened after Sunday's violent police crackdown.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her EU counterpart, Catherine Ashton, condemned the election and its aftermath as a "step backwards" and said relations wouldn't improve without "substantial progress" on democracy and human rights.
In a joint statement Thursday, they called for release of the presidential candidates and other jailed demonstrators, numbering around 600. "It is against this background that we will be assessing the government of Belarus's actions," they said.
Leonid Mindlin, an independent Belarussian political analyst, said Mr. Lukashenko could try to use the political prisoners as a bargaining tool with the West. "The people under arrest can be seen as hostages," he said.
Aides and family members expressed concern about the health of some of those in custody, including presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Vladimir Neklyayev. Mr. Sannikov had an injured leg when his lawyer saw him on Monday, the lawyer said.
Mr. Neklyayev's wife, Olga, said neither she nor his lawyer had been allowed to see the 64-year-old poet since he was seized early Monday from a hospital bed where he was recovering from a beating on the head during the post-election violence.
Belarus's interior minister said Messrs. Sannikov and Neklyayev were in good health.