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Belarus: Special Forces Again Implicated In Opposition Disappearances

  • Jeremy Bransten

In a videotape sent to media outlets in Belarus yesterday, two men identifying themselves as members of the Belarusian KGB allege the country's special forces murdered two leading opposition figures, missing since 1999. The tape is the latest in a series of similar accusations against the Belarusian authorities and comes just ahead of presidential elections due 9 September. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

Prague, 28 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Former Belarusian Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, former parliamentarian Viktar Hanchar, his associate Anatol Krasouski, and television journalist Dzmitry Zavadski -- all four were vocal opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and all four have been missing since 1999.

They are missing but rarely out of the headlines these days, as more voices come forward linking the men's disappearances to the Belarusian KGB.

In the latest installment, two men identifying themselves as Minsk-based KGB agents -- Henadz Uhlyanitsa and Andrey Zharnasek -- appear in a videotape made available to Belarusian and Russian television stations yesterday. In the tape, they accuse Interior Ministry special forces of murdering two of the missing men, Hanchar and Krasouski.

On the tape, Uhlyanitsa and Zharnasek allege that members of an elite SOBR unit, as the ministry's special forces are called, abducted Hanchar and Krasouski in September 1999. The accusers say the two men were then shot and killed and buried in a forest not far from the town of Byahoml. On the tape, the two men name names and show a photograph of men in combat uniforms who they say are members of the death squad. The two further allege that former Interior Minister Yury Sivakou, who currently heads the presidential office, was behind the killings.

Uhlyanitsa says he received the information from participants and direct witnesses to the act.

"I personally took part in the questioning of a witness. We spoke several times, but it was only during our third or fourth conversation that he gave us the full evidence about all the details of the case."

Zharnasek says that based on the information they received, he and his colleague, armed with night-vision goggles and other high-tech surveillance equipment, managed to locate the alleged burial spot. Hanchar and Krasouski were reportedly buried along with a car, making the area responsive to metal detection.

"In an area of 3.3 to 3.4 meters by 1.6 to 1.8 meters, the presence of iron was clearly detected. After this, we undertook two digs and at a depth of two meters we hit metal. After that, no one dug any further as the site is next to a military base."

Shocking truth or provocation? The Belarus authorities say the accusations are an outrageous lie. KGB spokesman Fyodor Kotov told RFE/RL by phone from Minsk that there is, indeed, an Uhlyanitsa working for the KGB, but it is not the man on the videotape. As for the man identifying himself as Zharnasek, Kotov says he is not a KGB agent:

"I don't recognize Uhlyanitsa, and I know him well. As for the other one, I don't recognize him at all. I don't know who he is."

The men calling themselves Zharnasek and Uhlyanitsa are in hiding. They say on the tape that they are ready to make a proper deposition to the police, but only when their safety is assured:

"We could also give a written statement to the authorities at the Prosecutor's Office, and maybe we'll do just that. Not now, but after we are safe."

Despite Kotov's dismissive tone, the latest allegations come at an inconvenient time for the authorities, with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's presidential re-election bid less than two weeks away. His main challenger, Uladzimir Hancharyk, has himself made similar allegations, saying he has obtained his own evidence linking the Interior Ministry to dissident disappearances.

And last month in Washington, D.C., U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Hunter confirmed that two Belarusian investigators had been granted U.S. asylum after revealing what the State Department called "credible" evidence of a government-sponsored death squad allegedly involved in the murders of up to 30 people.

A team from the Belarusian Interior Ministry was due to visit the alleged Hanchar and Krasouski burial site near the Byahoml base later today. Their findings are unlikely to satisfy -- or silence -- government critics.

(Alexander Lukashuk of the Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)