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Belarus/Russia: Yeltsin Says Row Over Journalists' Arrest Should Not Hinder Ties

Volzhsky Utes, Russia; 1 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin has reiterated that a row with Belarus over the arrest of a Russian television news crew should not complicate relations between the two states. Yeltsin told reporters today that recent critical remarks by Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka on the case were due to what Yeltsin called Lukashenka's youth and inability to handle criticism.

Lukashenka said yesterday that Yeltsin was being misinformed about the case involving an ORT news team by Kremlin opponents of closer ties between Belarus and Russia. Lukashenka's comments came after Yeltsin expressed indignation over the detention of ORT reporter Pavel Sheremet and his cameraman on grounds they had illegally entered Belarus from neighboring Lithuania. Yeltsin also said the incident could prompt him to revise a union agreement with Belarus.

Earlier today, Lukashenka canceled a trip to Kaliningrad after the governor of the Russian region telegrammed him last night and advised him to postpone the visit until the dispute is cleared up.

But Russian Presidential spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said today the Kalinigrad governor, Leonid Gorbenko, had sent the telegram without clearance from the Kremlin. Yastrzhembsky said that the incident highlighted how regional leaders can harm national policy.

Meanwhile, a Belarus court today handed down sentences to 14 journalists who took part in an unsanctioned rally yesterday in Minsk protesting the arrest of the ORT employees. Six were given fines ranging from $100 to $180 and eight were given warnings.

Belarus's main opposition Popular Front today issued a statement demanding the release of the two accused ORT employees, plus their driver, who is also being detained but who has not been charged. The Popular Front called the arrests, "a new crime of Lukashenka's junta."