US Diplomat Arrested in Belarus

MINSK (Reuter)The expulsion of a US diplomat sparked a row in the small former Soviet republic of Belarus on Monday–with the US embassy protesting and Minsk accusing Washington of behaving disrespectfully.

Serzh Alexandrov–a first secretary at the embassy–was arrested at an opposition rally which erupted in clashes on Sunday–detained several hours–and told to leave in 24 hours.

"The Ambassador Kenneth Yalovitz has strongly protested this action…and he did so at the highest level of the Belarus government," an embassy spokesman’said.

The State Department in Washington had been informed of the "arbitrary and unjustified" action which it viewed "with the utmost seriousness and gravity," he said.

"We consider observing demonstrations and other political manifestations to be a normal part of a diplomat’s activity," another spokeswoman’said.

The United States said Monday it may retaliate against Belarus for what it considers the unwarranted and unjustifiable arrest and expulsion of a US diplomat.

"We are studying our options," acting State Department spokesman John Dinger told reporters–adding that one of those options "is to reciprocate."

Dinger said Alexandrov was detained at the protest "despite clearly identifying himself as a diplomat–and he was not immediately released despite the intervention of other US diplomats present at the scene. And he was not shown the respect due an official representative of the United States Department of State."

"All of these actions constitute serious violations of normal diplomatic practice," the spokesman’said.

"It is not unusual in the course of our duties covering events such as this that American diplomats will be caught up when there’s a security cordon. (But) it is extremely unusual for American diplomats not to be very quickly released once they identify themselves to authorities," he added.

But the press secretary for President Alexander Lukashenko’s Security Council accused US representatives of meddling in internal affairs and of supporting the opposition.

"Despite its problems Belarus is a sovereign state and not a hallway. Bigger countries should respect its sovereignty," said Vasily Baranov.

"When in Rome–do as the Romans do. For example I cannot imagine myself taking part in an action aimed at overthrowing President (Bill) Clinton," he added.

According to state-controlled television–Alexandrov was accused of working for the Central Intelligence Agency–of putting "crude pressure" on the Interior Ministry and of committing "provocative actions" at the protest on Sunday.

The United States has been one of the most vocal opponents of Lukashenko’s increasingly authoritarian rule and cut off $40 million in aid over its human rights performance.

It accused police of using unnecessary force to put down peaceful protests and of arresting bystanders at some of a series of recent rallies against Lukashenko.

A loose union of prominent politicians–nationalists–intellectuals and students mainly in the capital actively oppose Lukashenko–but most of the population of 10 million backed him at a referendum last November.

On Monday Moscow called on both sides to show more tolerance and negotiate an end to their confrontation–but the Kremlin also said the recent crackdown on protests was an internal matter.

Lukashenko–who swept to power on promises of closer ties with Russia–is due to meet Yeltsin for new talks on integration in Moscow on April 2the first anniversary of a treaty setting up a two-nation "community."

Vintsuk Vyachorka–secretary of the board of the nationalist Popular Front which organized Sunday’s unsanctioned rally–said it had absolutely no connection to Alexandrov.

He accused Lukashenko of "anti-Western hysteria" and said Moscow could be pushing him into it as it needed a "faithful anti-NATO and anti-Western partner for its own games."

Belarus depends on Russia for energy supplies and Lukashenko shares Moscow’s opposition to the Western alliance’s plans to expand eastwards.

Vyachorka–whose organization is the most radical organized group to oppose Lukashenko– said more protests were planned for April 1 and 2 to coincide with the president’s visit to Moscow.

Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted the Interior Ministry as saying 11 policemen and six servicemen were injured on Sunday–when demonstrators hurled ice and smashed police car windows and police responded truncheons and tear gas.

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