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Belarus: Moscow Says Unrest An Internal Matter

Moscow, 24 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman says clashes between police and the opposition in Belarus are an internal matter which will not affect plans to integrate the two countries.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky told the Interfax news agency that Russia has repeatedly called for reconcilliation between the opposing sides in Belarus.

Yesterday's clashes -- in which police used tear gas and truncheons to break up an unsanctioned march -- resulted in the detention of 70 people, including Serge Alexandrov, first secretary at the U.S. embassy. Alexandrov was ordered to leave the country. A U.S. embassy spokesman said the U.S. ambassador has protested the expulsion.

The march in the capital, Minsk, was to protest against the authoritarian policies of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Interfax says Alexandrov, an ethnic Belarusian, was detained by police, along with former Belarus Interior Ministr Yuri Zakarenko, and Gennady Karpenko, the leader of the Civic Union party. The agency said U.S. consular officials in Minsk were allowed to contact Alexandrov, who, it said, was being detained at a police station. The U.S. embassy's official spokeswoman said Western diplomats often watched opposition protests, but she stressed they did not take part in them.

The reported arrests came after police moved in to halt some 4,000 protestors marching toward a square for a sanctioned "Day of Freedom" rally. Reuters says nationalists hurled chunks of ice, smashed police car windows and yelled, "Long Live Belarus." Interfax says three police officers were injured in scuffles with protestors and two were hospitalized. It had no word on injuries among the demonstrators.

Some 10,000 people later attended the sanctioned rally, organized by the opposition National Front, to mark the 79th anniversary of the founding of the short-lived Belarus republic before it was annexed by the Soviet Union.

Semyon Sharetsky, a leader of the National Front and former speaker of the parliament dissolved by Lukashenka, told the gathering that they must fight for a democratic and sovereign Belarus. He said that recently, terror against the people has become the state policy.

The reported detention of the U.S. diplomat comes at a time of worsening relations between Belarus and America. On Friday, Washington announced it was cutting of all financial aid to Minsk because of Belarus' poor human rights record.