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Belarus opposition council members appear for questioning in criminal case

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By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) – Two leading members of a newly formed opposition council in Belarus were questioned on Friday in a criminal case that accuses the body of trying to seize power from President Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed election.

Dozens of supporters accompanied Maksim Znak and Sarhey Dyleuski as they arrived for questioning at the headquarters of the Investigative Committee.

When he emerged later Znak, a lawyer, said he had had “productive discussions” and he saw no basis for his arrest.

“We gave our explanation, we will continue to work,” he said.

The Coordinating Committee was launched this week with the self-described aim of negotiating a transfer of power amid the largest political crisis in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, was declared the winner of an Aug. 9 presidential election, but tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets saying the election is rigged.

A harsh crackdown by police does not seem to have intimidated the protesters, and opposition has spread to include strikes at large state factories long seen as bastions of Lukashenko’s support.

His main opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has fled to neighbouring Lithuania. In a video message on Friday she called for more workers to go on strike to protest against the election result. She also told a news conference she would return to Belarus when she felt it was safe to do.

Prosecutors launched a criminal case on Thursday alleging that the Coordinating Committee was set up as an illegal attempt to seize power. The committee, made up of dozens of high profile public figures including a Nobel Prize-winning author and the ousted head of the country’s main drama theatre, says its aims are peaceful and its tactics lawful.

The European Union, which has rejected Lukashenko’s re-election, called for the case to be dropped.

“We expect the Belarusian authorities to stop the criminal case and instead to engage in a dialogue in view of moving towards a peaceful way out of the current crisis,” Nabila Massrali, an EU foreign policy spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Belarus is a close ally of Moscow, and the crisis is a test for the Kremlin which must decide whether to stick with Lukashenko or try to engineer a transfer of power to another leader.

It is also a challenge for the West. The country’s borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are major NATO frontiers, and eastern European states have spoken in support of the opposition.

But European officials are also keen avert a repeat of unrest six years ago in neighbouring Ukraine, when a pro-Russian leader was toppled in a popular uprising and Moscow intervened militarily, unleashing Europe’s deadliest ongoing conflict.

That has meant taking a cautious approach, including reassuring Moscow that officials are not trying to pry Belarus from Russia’s orbit.

“Belarus is not Ukraine: the people there are not seeking closer ties with the EU,” a senior EU official told Reuters. The bloc was trying to encourage the Belarusian authorities to negotiate with the opposition, “without tilting the geo-political balance for Belarus between the EU and Russia.”

Belarus opposition council members appear for questioning in criminal case

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