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Belarus: Authorities Formally Charge Russian Journalists

Minsk, 30 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Belarus authorities formally charged two Russian television journalists today with illegally crossing the country's border over the weekend. The charge carries a maximum penalty of three to five years imprisonment. Russian President Boris Yeltsin today expressed surprise and indignation over the arrests.

A trial date has not been set for ORT-TV reporter Pavel Sheremet and cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky. The reporters' driver, Yaroslav Ovchinnikov, was not charged but all three ORT employees had their detentions extended for another 10 days today.

The three are being held in a KGB cell in the city of Grodno. They were arrested over the weekend and charged with illegally crossing the Belarusian border with Lithuania while preparing a report.

Earlier today, Interfax quoted Yeltsin as saying he might revise a union charter and other accords on closer integration with Belarus if the matter is not settled.

In remarks carried by Interfax and ITAR-TASS, Yeltsin said he wants an explanation from Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka about the arrest. Speaking at his holiday residence at Volzhsky Utyos, Yeltsin expressed hope the incident could be settled. If it was not, Interfax quoted him saying "Let us reconsider the charter and the agreements which we have signed" with Belarus.

But Lukashenka, seen by liberals in Moscow and in the West as increasingly authoritarian, says the action was justified and he accuses the Russian media of waging an "information war" against him and his government.

Also today, Belarus Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich called on Russia not to let a row over the detention worsen their bilateral relations. Antonovich told Reuters that Minsk was aware of Russian concern on the matter. But he said the "incident cannot influence joint policy."

Russia's Union of Journalists has condemned the detentions as have other international press and human rights groups.