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Lithuania Outlines OSCE Priorities, Prods Belarus


Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis
Lithuania says resolving long-simmering territorial disputes will be the "highest commitment" of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this year.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis outlined his country's priorities as it assumes the rotating one-year presidency of that security and rights body.

"This is not just a matter for the chairmanship, it's a matter for us all," Azubalis said. "Resolving existing conflicts in the OSCE area in a peaceful and negotiated matter must be our highest commitment, our highest joint commitment."

The Vienna-based OSCE has been brokering negotiations on the three so-called frozen conflicts over Georgia's Russia-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moldova's breakaway Transdniester, and the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

The talks, however, have yielded little progress so far.

Azubalis said his country would push for a resumption of formal peace negotiations on Transdniester and for a greater OSCE presence in Georgia. The European security group, he added, will seek to "re-energize" talks over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Challenge To Minsk

The Lithuanian foreign minister also voiced concern over Belarusian authorities' decision to shut down the OSCE's office in Minsk.

The move came after the OSCE condemned Belarus for flouting the principles of free and fair elections and for the December crackdown on opposition demonstrators who had been protesting the reelection of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"I deeply regret that those principles have not been met in the recent elections in Belarus and that Belarus has withdrawn consensus for the continuation of the OSCE office in Minsk," Azubalis said. "I call for reconsideration of this decision as well as for fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria and standards."

Belarusian police arrested more than 600 people during and after the December 19 mass protests in Minsk.

Some 20 people, including several journalists and four presidential candidates who ran against Lukashenka, are still being held and face charges of organizing "mass disorder" -- a charge that can carry up to 15 years in jail.

Speaking later at a news conference, Azubalis called on Belarusian authorities to release all those prisoners and warned that sanctions were "unavoidable" unless Lukashenka's government improved its human rights record.

European Union officials said on January 12 the EU may slap new sanctions on Belarusian authorities, including a visa ban on Lukashenka and other Belarusian officials.

Azubalis's stance marks a departure from earlier comments attributed to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, which had angered the Belarusian opposition and critics at home.

Just weeks before the presidential election in Belarus, Grybauskaite was widely quoted as saying a victory by Lukashenka would guarantee stability and help limit Moscow's influence.

As OSCE chairman, Azubalis today also pledged to firmly defend the rights of journalists worldwide and support freedom of the media.

He called for an OSCE conference on the safety of journalists to be held in Vilnius in June.

"The importance of such a conference is made clear when you realize that over the past 12 years, more than 1,100 journalists and media staff have been killed worldwide while pursuing their legitimate and valuable profession," Azubalis said. "This cannot continue."

Other Focuses

During his speech at the OSCE, Azubalis also noted that his country today marked the 20th anniversary of the brutal Soviet crackdown on Lithuania's independence movement that killed 14 people and injured some 700 others.

He called for a minute of silence to honor those killed in the violence.

Azubalis said other priorities of the Lithuanian chairmanship included enhancing efforts to tackle trafficking in people, weapons, and drugs, promoting tolerance through education, and developing common principles in the field of energy security.

"Lithuania is under no illusions about the enormity of the tasks that face us this year," he concluded.

Lithuania on January 1 took over from Kazakhstan, whose OSCE chairmanship had been criticized over the country's rights record.

AFP quoted the Belarusian Justice Ministry warning a top rights groups today over alleged "attempts to discredit Belarus." The ministry accused the Belarusian branch of the Helsinki Committee of spreading what it called "false information" about "the government's work "on supporting stability and the rule of law" in Belarus.

The ministry added that several media outlets were guilty of similar infringements, without specifying.

written by Claire Bigg in Prague
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