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West slams Belarus crackdown

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Man works on deserted main square in central Minsk after police cleared it of protesters.

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MINSK, Belarus (CNN) -- Western leaders have agreed to impose restrictive measures on the Belarussian government as they condemned a crackdown against opposition protesters in Minsk.

But while Friday's forced removal by police of about 200 demonstrators from the center of the capital Minsk sparked criticism by the European Union and United States, Russia accused an international security organization of instigating tensions during the election campaign.

The demonstrators, led by a political opposition that plans to hold a mass rally on Saturday, want a re-run of the election that gave President Alexander Lukashenko five more years in power. The opposition says the poll was rigged.

In a declaration at the end of a summit in Brussels on Friday, all 25 European leaders agreed, declaring the March 19 presidential vote "fundamentally flawed."

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik gave no details but Reuters reported EU officials as saying the measures being considered were visa bans on those accused of allegedly rigging the poll, and possible asset freezes, but not economic sanctions against the former Soviet republic.

"On a continent of open and democratic societies, Belarus is a sad exception," the EU leaders said in a statement.

The leaders are calling for the immediate release of detained protesters "for exercising their freedom of assembly and expression."

They welcome what it calls "the message of hope brought by Belarus' democratic opposition and civil society.

"Their continuing and brave efforts to advance the cause of democracy in exceptionally difficult circumstances deserve our full recognition and support."

The United States also said it planned to impose financial sanctions and travel restrictions against Belarus officials to show its opposition to the government's crackdown on protesters, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Friday.

"We strongly condemn the actions by Belarussian security services," Reuters reported McClellan as saying.

He praised a statement by the European Council against those in Belarus who violated international standards including Lukashenko. "We plan to take parallel steps involving targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions," he said.

The election result has set the U.S. and other Western countries at odds with Russia. Washington, echoing the findings of international poll monitors, has accused Lukashenko of intimidating opponents while Moscow has congratulated him.

"We are disturbed by the break-up of demonstrations and the detention of protestors in Belarus," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said in a statement in Washington, Reuters reported.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said a war of words was threatening to escalate over Belarus as Russia criticized the West for stirring up the protests in the wake of peaceful revolutions in former Soviet bloc countries.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's comments were the first from Moscow since the protests were smashed.

"Long before the elections, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights had declared that they (the elections) would be illegitimate and it was pretty biased in its commentaries on their progress and results, thus playing an instigating role," the Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying. (Full story)

The OSCE's observer mission said Sunday's election did not meet standards for a free and fair vote.

"Arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression," the OSCE mission said.

OSCE assessments that found recent elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan seriously flawed were key factors in galvanizing protests that brought opposition leaders to power. Lukashenko claims that similar demonstrations are being prepared in Belarus with foreign backing.

'Language of force'

The opposition, who were holding emergency meetings on Friday morning, vowed Saturday's big protest would go ahead. Main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who was not among those detained, planned to hold a news conference.

Five days of protests in October Square, in which numbers have ranged from 200 to several thousand, are rare as police in tightly controlled Belarus usually clamp down on dissent.

"The authorities...only know the language of force," main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who has spearheaded the peaceful resistance, told reporters, his voice breaking, according to Reuters.

Dozens of police surrounded the protesters in the makeshift tent camp and told them to disperse. Protesters refused.

Minutes later, police forcibly carried about 10 of them to trucks. Other demonstrators followed without resisting.

State television made a point of quoting city police saying no one was hurt in the operation. An officer in command urged his men not to use excessive force, reports said.

The protests had echoes of the 2004 "Orange Revolution" that produced weeks of mass protests in neighboring Ukraine, but the crowds were far smaller.

Some observers said the relatively gentle treatment of demonstrators suggested Lukashenko may be trying to react more sensitively given Western opinion.

Others said he may have come under pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin to avoid police brutality.

Those arrested seemed likely to get jail sentences of up to two weeks for public order offences.

Lukashenko won Sunday's elections with an official vote tally of 83 percent. Milinkevich came second with 6 percent.

Despite his pariah status in the West, Lukashenko is popular among Belarussians, Reuters said, for having ensured relative political and economic stability.

Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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