A high-profile Belarussian opposition figure was arrested following a rally in Minsk Saturday, a day after EU leaders slapped sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko.
Riot police beat protesters in the Belarusian capital Minsk
"The police took Alexander Kozulin and several members of his family, as well as other protestors who were walking towards the prison where their comrades are being detained," Nida Shidlovskaya, Kozulin's spokeswoman, told AFP.
Kozulin, a former dean of Minsk university, was a runner-up in the March 19 presidential election that saw authoritarian Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko re-elected to a third term in office with 83 percent. The main Belarussian opposition leader, Alexander Milinkevich, came second with 6.1 percent according to official results.
Riot police were seen putting a man into a police van and passers-by who witnessed the arrest said he was Kozulin. At an anti-Lukashenko protest rally of around 7,000 people, Kozulin had earlier slammed the Belarussian leader, saying :"The last dictator should be sent to The Hague (international crimes) tribunal. We call on the United Nations to look at the question of Belarus."
Towards the end of the two-hour rally, Kozulin called on
opposition supporters to march to the Okrestina prison, where hundreds of protestors detained during a massive crackdown over the past week are believed to be held.
Maxim Kapran, 30, who was with the group that joined Kozulin in the march on the prison, said some 2,000 protestors took part but were met by riot police. Clashes between protestors and police broke out, Kapran told AFP.
"One man defended his wife when four police officers attacked her during the clashes. They kicked him and he lost consciousness. Everyone thought he was dead but he had concussion," Kapran said.
In a separate incident, a spokesman for Milinkevich, Pavel
Mazheika, was also arrested after the rally when police stopped the car in which he was travelling in and seized sound equipment, Milinkevich's wife, who was travelling with Mazheika and the opposition leader, told AFP.
EU slaps sanctions
The clashes come a day after EU leaders said they would widen restrictions beyond the six visa bans now in place on Belarusian officials as they began to ratchet up their stance on Belarus -- which they called "a sad exception" to democracy in Europe. More travel bans are likely but assets could be also frozen, EU officials said.
Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller said the restrictions would come into effect around April 10 and could involve more than a dozen people.
"It's a penalty for (Lukashenko's) sins. This is a fight of good against evil," he said.
The EU moved to block Belarusian officials' visas
"(Lukashenko) has provided proof that he is a dictator and must be treated as such," said Elmar Brok, chairperson of the committee for foreign policy in the European Parliament in an interview with DW-WORLD.DE. Brok agreed that Europe should set up travel restrictions against Lukashenko and the members of his government. "In addition, one must think about the possibility of other sanctions," he added.
The move to extend the travel bans came hours after Belarus quashed an unprecedented protest against Lukashenko, smashing a tent camp in Minsk and arresting hundreds of young opposition activists days after the veteran hardliner was swept back into power in elections condemned by the EU and other Western nations as "fundamentally flawed."
Leaders call for release of captives
"We urge the Belarus authorities to respect the freedom of assembly and to release the prisoners," said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU presidency.
The Belgian presidency of the leading Western election-monitoring body, the OSCE, also called on the regime to halt the "persecution" of opposition activists and release those arrested."
"The authorities must immediately end the persecution of their opponents," the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, said in a statement.
Steinmeier wants the Belarusian opposition at the next EU summit
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier condemned the crackdown on the opposition in Minsk, saying: "I urge the Belarusian government to release the imprisoned opposition politicians" and suggested inviting Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkewitsch and other opposition politicians to the next meeting of EU Foreign ministers on April 10.
Moscow blames OSCE of stirring up trouble
EU leaders urged Belarus’ giant neighbor Russia to help calm the tensions.
"We have to be tough, but we also have to speak with our Russian friends, that is most important," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.
Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson said: "We need to be more firm ... and demonstrate that we are united inside the European Union about how we look at the relations with Belarus but also with Russia."
Russia however has played down the police swoop in Minsk. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was nothing in comparison to the "violence" seen in France.
"What I saw in images from Minsk can in no way be compared to the violence we can see in certain European capitals," he said with visible satisfaction in a thinly-veiled reference to student riots in France.
Talking about Minsk, Lavrov also said he was "sure that protests like this have little chance of changing anything."
Sergei Lavrov sees nothing wrong in the crush of protests in Belarus
"These people spent several days on the square but we didn't
understand what they were hoping for," said Lavrov, apparently confirming Moscow's approval of the status quo in Belarus.
The minister saw the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as responsible for inciting the Belarus protests.
"Unfortunately, we saw a situation where the OSCE observer mission began talking about illegitimacy well ahead of the elections with quite a bit of taking sides, thus playing a role of instigator," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
Joining the chorus of Europe-wide criticism, the Slovak foreign ministry called on Minsk to end its repression of the opposition supporters.
Lukashenko has almost run out of friends
"Belarus can only find its place in the community of democratic states if it returns to a policy that respects democratic standards and freedoms and human rights," it said in a statement.
In Budapest, the deputy Belarus ambassador was summoned to "convey the Hungarian government's protest at the use of force," a statement said.
Non-EU member Norway said the crackdown was totally unacceptable. A foreign ministry spokeswoman said: "This election has shown that Belarus is governed by an authoritarian regime that cannot be passively observed."