Page last updated at 17:14 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 18:14 UK

Belarus president visits Vatican

Alexander Lukashenko meets the Pope (27 April 2009)
Alexander Lukashenko has been shunned by the West for years

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has been to the Vatican during a visit to Italy seen as another step towards ending his diplomatic isolation.

It is Mr Lukashenko's first official visit to Western Europe since 1995.

An EU travel ban, imposed in 1999 over human-rights abuses and suppression of opposition activity, has been lifted to allow him to attend a summit in May.

The Vatican said the talks with the Pope had been positive and had covered "internal problems" in Belarus.

Correspondents say the EU is dropping its previous policy of isolating Belarus and seeking broad engagement with its leadership and the democratic opposition.

'Democratic evolution'

President Lukashenko met Pope Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Palace. Their conversation lasted almost half an hour, and was conducted in a "positive" atmosphere, a Vatican statement said.

The message that the Italian government will send to President Lukashenko is one founded on the European principle defending the law-based state
Franco Frattini
Italian Foreign Minister

The Pope and the Vatican's secretary of state are said to have spoken to the Belarus leader about "certain internal problems of the country", but there was no mention if these referred to concerns about human rights and democracy.

BBC regional analyst Steven Eke says there was no obvious religious significance to the meeting - Mr Lukashenko describes himself as "an Orthodox atheist" and only one-in-seven of Belarus's 10 million inhabitants is Roman Catholic.

However, our correspondent says, the talks between the two leaders would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

Mr Lukashenko is due to meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini for dinner in Rome later.

Responding to criticism of the official visit in the newspaper Corriere della Sera, Mr Frattini said it was intended to help Belarus "take up a gradual path of democratic evolution" and "encourage a progressive nearing of Belarus to Europe and its democratic standards".

"The message that the Italian government will send to President Lukashenko is one founded on the European principle defending the law-based state and the fundamental rights and liberties for the men and women of Belarus," he wrote on Monday.

Our correspondent says the European Union is attempting to develop an approach of broad engagement with Belarus that combines work with the democratic opposition and civil society on the one hand, and dialogue with the existing Belarusian leadership on the other.

The EU has extended the suspension of a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko and some 40 senior officials. It has begun high-level talks with Belarus on a number of bilateral issues.

However, in dropping its previous policy of isolating Belarus, Europe has come to realise that there is little chance of rapid regime change in Minsk, our correspondent adds.

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