White House joins EU in sanctions against Belarus

The United States joined European nations Friday in imposing sanctions on Belarus in retaliation for a crackdown on political protesters after an election that the White House said was fraudulent.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Washington would act in unison with the European Union in applying targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko and others.

"We urge all members of the international community to demand that authorities in Belarus respect the rights of their own citizens to express themselves peacefully and to condemn any and all abuses," McClellan said, reports AP.

According to Washington Post, in a morning news briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States demands the immediate release of hundreds of protesters who have been arrested for demonstrating against the reportedly rigged March 19 elections, which President Alexander Lukashenko claims to have won with 83 percent of the vote.

Riot police broke up days of demonstrations in Minsk, the Belarusan capital, early today, arresting about 200 protesters who had been camped out in the main square and driving them away in trucks.

The opposition, whose candidate received only 6 percent of the vote, charged that the election was blatantly fraudulent, an assertion backed by independent election observers and the United States.

Under Lukashenko, 51, a former Soviet collective farm manager who came to power in 1994 as an anti-corruption crusader, Belarus has become one of the world's "outposts of tyranny," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described half a dozen authoritarian countries.

But the man dubbed by Western critics as "Europe's last dictator" has won the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose foreign minister defended today's police action against the protesters.

McClellan told reporters, "The United States calls on authorities in Belarus to release without delay the hundreds of citizens who have been detained not only in the past 24 hours but in recent days and weeks simply for expressing their political views."

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, reports CNN International.

O.Ch.