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EU Calls For Reform After Belarus Crackdown

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -- European Union president Sweden has called on Belarusian authorities to take steps to improve democracy and human rights in the country after a crackdown by authorities on demonstrators this week.

"The Presidency urges the Belarusian authorities to refrain from the use of force in dealing with peaceful demonstrations and to ensure that representatives of independent media are able to perform their tasks without interference," Sweden, holder of the rotating presidency, said in a statement.

One day earlier, on September 16, police in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, broke up an unsanctioned opposition rally and arrested about 20 people.

About 40 activists had gathered on the city's main square to mark the anniversary of the 1999 disappearance of opposition activist Viktar Hanchar (Gonchar). Riot police broke up the protest, dragging activists into nearby vans and blocked journalists trying to cover the rally.

The European Union has proposed negotiating an association agreement with Belarus under its "Eastern Partnership" scheme which provides for closer cooperation on energy and offers aid.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was described by a former U.S. administration as Europe's last dictator, but he has granted concessions to the opposition in recent years in a bid to build better ties with the European Union.