EU to consider sanctions against Belarus as police fires live rounds at protesters
Belarus said on Wednesday that police had fired live rounds at protesters in the city of Brest and arrested more than 1,000 people nationwide, intensifying a crackdown that has prompted the European Union to weigh new sanctions on Minsk. The EU has condemned the violence and unjustified arrests.
Security forces have clashed with protesters for three consecutive nights after strongman President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide re-election victory in a vote on Sunday that his opponents say was rigged.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets again on Wednesday. Women dressed in white formed a human chain outside a covered food market in the capital Minsk, while a crowd also gathered outside a prison where protesters were being kept.
Lukashenko has sought better ties with the West amid strained relations with traditional ally Russia. Brussels lifted sanctions, imposed over Lukashenko's human rights record, in 2016 but will consider new measures this week.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, the 65-year-old Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century but faces anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a sluggish economy and human rights.
"I have to come today to support those who go out at night," said Elena, a protester speaking outside the covered market. "It's not only my vote that was stolen from me, but 20 years of my life. The authorities must go."
The Belarusian interior ministry said 51 protesters and 14 police officers had been injured in clashes on Tuesday night.
In Brest, a city in southwestern Belarus on the Polish border, police fired live rounds after some protesters it said were armed with metal bars ignored warning shots fired in the air, the ministry said. One person was injured.
Lukashenko has accused the protesters of being in cahoots with foreign backers from Russia and elsewhere.
Belarusian state media this week broadcast footage of a van in Minsk with Russian number plates saying it was packed with ammunition and tents.
Tracked down by Reuters, Valdemar Grubov, the van's owner, said he was a film producer and that the vehicle contained only his own personal effects.
He said he had been unable to retrieve the van due to COVID-19 restrictions and was not involved in any foreign plot.
Lukashenko's rival in Sunday's vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, has fled to neighbouring Lithuania to join her children there. She urged her compatriots not to oppose the police and to avoid putting their lives in danger.
EU foreign ministers will meet on Friday to discuss targeted sanctions against Belarus following Sunday's contested election and subsequent violent crackdown down on protesters, Sweden's top diplomat said on Wednesday.
"I absolutely think we need to consider broadening targeted sanctions against those responsible for the violence against the protesters (and) for the election fraud - those involved in the electoral process not having turned out free and fair," Linde told Swedish radio on Wednesday.
"This morning there has been a summons to an extraordinary EU foreign ministers' meeting on Friday where we will discuss precisely this (sanctions)," she told the public broadcaster.
Lithuania had also said it would consider such steps.
Any decision on sanctions requires agreement by all 27 EU member states, meaning no imminent move is expected.
As seen in the cases of Russia or Ukraine, such decisions can take weeks or months. Foreign ministers are due to next meet at the end of August in Berlin.
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said in a letter to Borrell, which was seen by Reuters, that the Friday meeting should "show support for the peaceful protesters and exchange ideas on how the EU could help them".
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has also called for a special summit of EU leaders to come up with a new package for Belarus that would address the protesters' demands on fighting corruption and respecting freedom of speech and the rule of law.
In a letter to top EU officials, which was also seen by Reuters, Morawiecki said the protests in Minsk were "clear proof that many Belarusians want change... and that they want the European Union to be present in their lives. It is our duty to answer that call".
"Neither free not fair"
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Tuesday condemned what he called "disproportionate" violence by Belarus authorities against protesters following Sunday's presidential election and said the EU could take unspecified measures.
"The elections were neither free nor fair," Borrell said in a statement, citing "credible reports" from domestic observers which showed the vote did not meet international standards.
"State authorities deployed disproportionate and unacceptable violence... Thousands of people were detained and the crackdown on freedoms of assembly, media and expression intensified," he said.
Borrell said the EU could, as part of a planned review of relations with Belarus, take "measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results", without elaborating.
He urged Belarusian authorities to immediately release all those detained.
Źródło: TVN24 News in English, Reuters