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US Calls Belarus Arrests Deeply Disturbing

The United States joined the European Union Thursday in condemning the arrest and harassment of several opposition figures in Belarus. U.S. officials say they will examine with European allies further ways to press the Minsk government of Alexander Lukashenko to end repression.

The State Department is calling the latest crackdown against opposition figures in Belarus outrageous and reprehensible and it is pledging that the United States will maintain a united front with the European Union and others to pressure the Lukashenko government to respect human rights.

The comments from the State Department follow the arrest and jailing of opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich and three associates for taking part Wednesday in what authorities in Minsk said was an unauthorized march to a rally marking the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Milinkevich, the opposition candidate in last month's presidential election, and the others were ordered jailed for two weeks. In addition, officials here said a fifth opposition activist, Anatoly Lebedko, was detained and beaten by agents of the Belrusian secret police agency, which is still known by its Soviet-era acronym, the KGB.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli condemned the actions, which he said were unfortunately only the latest in an ongoing series of official measures against Belarus citizens trying to exercise basic human rights and freedoms.

"We condemn these actions and we call on the authorities to immediately release those detained and drop the charges against them," he said. "I would note that both we and the European Union have already announced measures to hold accountable officials responsible for these abuses. And we will continue working with our European partners to maintain a united front in the face of this gross assault on values that we all share."

The United States and the European Union imposed travel restrictions on President Lukashenko and senior associates following the March 19 election which the country's leader since 1994 was said to have won with about 83 percent of the vote.

Milenkevich, the main opposition candidate, was said to have gotten six percent of the vote in the election that was widely condemned as fraudulent.

Mr. Lukashenko, a former Soviet agriculture official, has run Belarus with an increasingly authoritarian hand since he first won election, and his government is accused of severe human rights abuses including the disappearance of opposition leaders in past years.

Spokesman Ereli was not specific about possible further steps against the Lukashenko government but said the United States has common cause with partners in the European Union and the OSCE to confront and try to change the situation in Belarus.

The spokesman said the United States has tried to support civil society and non-governmental organizations in Belarus but that the task in bringing change to the authoritarian regime in Minsk is not easy and requires, among other things committed international partners and a brave citizenry in the Central European state.