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Belarus/Russia: Lukashenka Unclear On Journalists' Release

Minsk, 28 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka did not confirm a statement today by Russian President Boris Yeltsin that Minsk authorities will release two journalists working for Russia's ORT television. Lukashenka said he and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov had reached an unspecified agreement on the issue in talks today, but added that "the solution to the problem is to be found in Moscow."

Speaking at the end of the talks, Lukashenka said that an upcoming meeting with Yeltsin will help smooth relations between the two countries, unsettled by a dispute over the journalists' detention.

Earlier today, Yeltsin said Lukashenka had promised him in a telephone conversation to release from prison the two journalists. In remarks shown on NTV commercial televison, he said that Lukashenka "may need one or two days to tackle legal issues and then he will let them go."

But Primakov said more talks appeared to be needed before the journalists' release. The two ORT TV journalists --- both Belarusian citizens -- are in jail on charges of having violated the Belarusian border earlier this month. Five other ORT journalists were freed last week after Moscow exerted pressure.

Yeltsin said that as a result of the telephone conversation with Lukashenka, he decided to meet the Belarusian president during his scheduled visit to Moscow next month, during the celebrations of the 850th anniversary of Moscow.

Lukashenka said that during the telephone conversation he informed Yeltsin of the situation. He said Yeltsin will soon receive all documentation on the issue and said there are questions that have still to be clarified by the ORT leadership.

Meanwhile, Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky today dismissed Lukashenka's suggestion that Primakov may soon be removed.

Lukashenka yesterday told reporters that Primakov had been sent to Minsk by rivals who hoped the mission would fail in order to remove him. Yeltsin ordered Primakov to travel to Minsk earlier this week.

Yastrzhembsky told Itar-Tass that Yeltsin is "satisfied" with the Foreign Ministry and with Primakov's activity.

Yastrzhembsky is also the deputy head of Yeltsin's administration in charge of foreign relations and is seen as a possible replacement for Primakov, should the foreign minister step down.

Arriving in Minsk yesterday, Primakov said he did not want to interfere in Belarus' internal affairs and said he had not come as the journalists' "defender."

Lukashenka has often criticized Russian journalists, alleging they are biased against him.

Primakov said he had also come to discuss development of the loose union Russia and Belarus formed in April, adding that Moscow views the agreement as very important.