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Bush Meets with Belarusian Widows


The Bush administration says Belarus is harassing political opponents ahead of next months' presidential elections. President Bush met Monday with two Belarusian women, whose husbands - one a pro-democracy businessman and the other an independent journalist - disappeared in Belarus.

The U.S. State Department says the detention and harassment of political opponents adds to already serious doubts about the fairness of next month's elections in Belarus.

The Bush administration has long been critical of President Alexander Lukashenko, calling him Europe's last dictator for suppressing human rights and free speech.

In an effort to bring greater attention to such abuses as voting approaches, President Bush dropped by a meeting that National Security Advisor Steve Hadley had with two Belarusian women who oppose the Lukashenko government.

Irina Karasovskaya and Svyatlana Vadaskaya say their husbands were abducted and killed by government security forces in 1999. One was a pro-democracy businessman. The other was an independent journalist. Their bodies were never found.

Following their White House meeting, Karasovskaya said she was encouraged by the president's support.

"We feel a big, big support from the United States for all democratic people, who fight for democracy in Belarus," said Irina Karasovskaya. "In our country, we have a real dictatorship. We have political prisoners in our country."

President Lukashenko says security forces are taking action against what he calls blackmail and interference from the West, ahead of his run for a third term in voting scheduled for March 19.

Vadaskaya says those elections will not be fair, and government opponents must be prepared to challenge the outcome.

"We feel that it would be a mistake to consider these elections as an ending," said Svyatlana Vadaskaya. "It should be the beginning of the new phase. These elections will be held, however they are not going to be free and fair elections."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan says President Bush expressed his condolences to the widows.

"The president underscored his personal support for their efforts to seek justice for the disappeared, and for all those who seek to return freedom to Belarus," said Scott McClellan. "The meeting took place 20 days before the presidential election in Belarus. It highlights our concern about the conduct of the government in Belarus leading-up to the election."

McClellan says the United States will do everything it can to advance freedom and democracy in Belarus, and stands with Belorussians in their effort to chart their own future.

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