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Belarus: U.S. Calls For Death Squad Probe

The United States says Belarus must undertake a credible investigation into allegations that authorities in Minsk used death squads to silence political opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The State Department says these charges -- as yet unproven -- and other disturbing developments call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election. RFE/RL correspondent Frank Csongos reports:

Washington, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is calling on Belarus to conduct a thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into allegations that authorities used a "death squad" to kill political opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters yesterday that Washington considers the allegations credible enough to investigate:

"Although the connection between the disappearance of leading pro-democracy politicians over the last two years and government-run death squads has yet to be proven, we do take these charges seriously. We expect a full, independent, and public investigation."

Two men who say they are former members of the Belarusian KGB made the allegations in a videotape released to media organizations in Belarus and Russia on 27 August. Authorities in Minsk deny the existence of death squads.

Lukashenka himself denied in a television statement last night (28 August) that his security service killed two leading opposition figures in 1999. The missing men are opposition leader Viktar Hanchar and an associate, Anatol Krasouski.

Boucher says the U.S. is troubled by developments in Belarus during the run-up to the 9 September presidential elections.

Boucher outlined a long list of actions Lukashenka's regime has taken that the spokesman says undermine the international community's confidence that the Belarusian authorities are committed to holding a free and fair election.

Boucher says those actions include harassing journalists, closing media printing plants, confiscating newspapers that cover opposition candidates, and, earlier this week, expelling a U.S. trade union expert who was working with local unions on election issues. He said the U.S. worker, Robert Fielding, was interrogated and then deported to Poland. Richard Boucher said:

"The incidents are just a few examples of how the Lukashenka regime regularly obstructs and impedes the electoral process. Such acts can only serve to undermine the international community's confidence that the Belarusian authorities are committed to holding a free and fair presidential election."

Supporters of the chief opposition presidential candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk, complain that they are facing harassment and persecution by the authorities. Western leaders and human rights groups have widely criticized Lukashenka for consolidating power, suppressing dissent, and resisting reforms of the ailing economy.

Boucher outlined a series of measures the U.S. believes Belarus authorities must take to ensure a free election:

"We think that they need to take certain steps and try to ensure that the election can be free and fair. First of all, to ensure access by all parties to the state-run media on an equitable basis. Second, to allow meaningful participation by all parties and electoral commissions at the national and local levels. Third, to end the harassment of non-governmental organizations engaged in election-related civic education. And fourth, to allow effective election monitoring at all polling places by domestic and international observers for the full five days of polling and during the vote count."

The State Department says Belarus cannot expect improved relations with the United States unless free and fair presidential elections are allowed to take place.