Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Belarus opposition offers talks as UN hears fears of 'another iron curtain'

Belarus opposition offers talks as UN hears fears of 'another iron curtain'

GENEVA (Reuters) – Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya demanded on Friday an international mission to document what she called “atrocities” during crackdowns on anti-government protests but said she was ready to talk to end weeks of violence.

She addressed a highly charged debate on the Belarus crisis at the UN Human Rights Council, where envoys from Minsk and its backer Moscow faced off against EU delegations who are pushing for sanctions and investigations.

U.N. rights investigator Anaïs Marin told the session member states needed to act to prevent a major geopolitical rift. “Let’s not allow another Iron curtain to descend on the European continent,” she said.

Marin said more than 10,000 people have been “abusively arrested”, with more than 500 reports of torture and thousands “savagely beaten”, since President Alexander Lukashenko retained power after a disputed presidential election on Aug. 9.

Protesters say the vote was fraudulent. Lukashenko says he won the vote fairly by a landslide, and dismisses accusations of abuses which he says are part of a Western smear campaign.

Marin’s speech was interrupted several times by objections from other U.N. members including Russian, Belarusian and other delegations who called a halt to her participation.

The U.N. Human Rights Council session will consider an EU draft resolution for U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet to monitor the crisis and report back by year-end.

Tsikhanouskaya, in a video message to the 47-member state forum, called for the monitoring mission and said the government should hold another election.

“I once again emphasize our willingness to talk with the authorities and look for peaceful solution to the crisis that has affected our nation,” added Tskihanouskaya, who fled her homeland for Lithuania during the protests.

“We demand to immediately cease violence against peaceful citizens. We demand immediate release of all political prisoners,” she said.

President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s main ally, agreed to loan Belarus $1.5 billion at a summit on Monday, and the two countries are conducting joint military training exercises in Belarus.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday that special forces from Russia and Belarus had rehearsed a counter-terrorism scenario involving freeing hostages from a building in their “Slavic Brotherhood 2020” drills.

It said more than 800 military personnel from the two countries were taking part in the training near the Belarusian city of Brest.

During the U.N. debate, Ukraine’s foreign minister warned Russia against taking steps that may undermine the sovereignty of Belarus and destabilise the region.

“It is heartbreaking to watch the footage of our close neighbours viciously beaten down and arbitrarily detained on the streets of their native cities,” Dmytro Kuleba told the debate.