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Belarus: U.S. Considers Sanctions For Alleged Illegal Arms Sales

The United States is concerned that the government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is selling arms to and training the military officers of countries that support terrorists. On 28 February, Washington threatened to impose sanctions against Minsk unless it complies with United Nations rules on arms sales.

Washington, 1 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is considering imposing sanctions on Belarus for weapons transfers that Minsk has allegedly carried out to so-called "rogue" states -- such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya -- that Washington says support international terrorism.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing yesterday on 28 February that a senior American envoy -- Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer -- recently visited Minsk to discuss U.S. concerns about the transfers with top Belarusian officials, including Defense Minister Leonid Maltsev.

"Deputy Assistant Secretary [Steven] Pifer put the question very clearly to the Belarusian government: They should not be in the business of selling arms to countries with histories of supporting terrorism or fomenting regional conflict," Boucher said.

In recent weeks, European and American media have carried reports suggesting that the government of President Lukashenka has been quietly transferring arms and providing military training to countries prohibited from receiving such assistance by United Nations regulations.

Minsk vehemently denies the arms sales charges, despite being one of the world's top exporters of weapons and a trading partner of Iraq, Iran, and Libya. Lukashenka told the American newspaper "The Wall Street Journal" on 19 February that the allegations are propaganda fed to the West by opposition leaders bent on toppling him.

But State Department spokesman Boucher said the U.S. -- which has long criticized what it sees as Lukashenka's poor record on human rights and democratization -- takes the allegations very seriously. He said the U.S. could react by imposing sanctions against Minsk but that Washington also has other diplomatic and political options.

"We use a variety of means to prevent such transfers. Sanctions are a possible tool, but they are only one possible tool to address them. So at this point, we've made it quite clear what we think the responsibilities of the Belarusian government are," Boucher said.

Boucher was asked how the U.S. tries to persuade countries not to sell arms to terrorists: "First of all, we tell them. Second of all, we try to get them to control sales. Third of all, we monitor such sales and where they are occurring [and] we try to stop them. We [also] try to [dissuade] recipient countries. Fourth of all, in various places, we have controls, interdiction regimes, customs inspectors and a variety of other things to try and implement UN sanctions. And fifth, we have other ways."

Boucher scoffed, however, at a suggestion by one reporter that the U.S. could use military force against Belarus should Minsk not comply with UN sanctions: "The one [option] that I have specifically not thought of, and not included, is military options."

The State Department's Pifer, who visited Belarus on 22 February, met with top cabinet members, as well as with independent journalists, non-governmental organizations, and relatives of jailed and disappeared members of the opposition. He did not meet with Lukashenka.

Pifer's visit came on the heels of a stop in Minsk the previous week by three U.S. congressmen who also met with Belarusian officials to discuss concerns that the Minsk government is selling arms to nations that support terrorism.

In comments made to reporters in Minsk, Pifer called on the Belarusian government to address "repeated reports from a variety of credible sources that Belarus is involved in arms transfers to states or groups that support terrorism" and in training military officers in these countries.

Pifer was also quoted as saying he offered Belarusian Defense Minister Colonel General Leanid Maltsau U.S. assistance in implementing a system to tightly control arms exports.

Pifer cited information allegedly showing that Belarus trained the Iraqi military to operate an anti-aircraft defense system last fall. Pifer said he could not offer any details of the report in order to protect his sources. Boucher declined to comment on the report when asked about it by RFE/RL.

The U.S. and Britain have at times targeted Iraqi air-defense systems to protect the UN-sanctioned "no-fly zones" that have kept Baghdad from flying aircraft over northern and southern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The U.S. -- which suspects Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction -- is reportedly considering various means to topple Saddam.