Donors pledge $120 million aid for Belarus opposition

WARSAW — 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.

Poland, the host of the conference and which neighbours Belarus, said that Lukashenko should expect to face the kind of popular uprising that has swep the Arab world as he announced the figure to journalists.

"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 at the gathering.

"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 36-nation "Solidarity with Belarus" 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 comes in the wake of the mass arrests which followed Lukashenko's December 19 disputed re-election for a fourth term, extending a rule that stretches back to 1994.

"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 at the Warsaw meeting.

Her father Vladimir Neklyayev, 64, was arrested after standing against Lukashenko in the election, and was Saturday placed under house arrest after being released from prison.

Neklyayeva told AFP he has been denied hospitalisation after suffering four medical crises in Minsk's infamous KGB prison where he spent over a month. Hundreds of other Lukashenko opponents remain behind bars.

"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.

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

Poland -- which has been accused by Lukashenko of trying to topple him -- 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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