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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Belarus protests spotlight disappeared
Belarus opposition activists demonstrating outside the president's residence
Protesters wore shirts with portraits of the disappeared
Two days before the presidential elections in Belarus, protesters have gathered outside the residence of President Alexander Lukashenko, demanding to learn the fate of government opponents who have disappeared.


The authorities have 48 hours to prove they aren't involved in the kidnappings

Opposition activist, Anatoly Lebedko
The president has said the government had nothing to do with the disappearences and has ordered official investigations, but these have so far produced no results.

Several former members of the security forces who have defected to the West have accused Mr Lukashenko of setting up death squads to eliminate political opponents.

Mr Lukashenko is expected to easily win a second term in Sunday's vote.

New revelations

The protesters carried pictures of the disappeared, and placards saying: "We want to know the truth".

Map of Belarus
"We will continue to organise such human chains, not only in Minsk, but all over Belarus, because we want to know who was the real mastermind of these crimes," said Anatoly Lebedko, an opposition leader who organised the picket.

"The authorities have 48 hours to prove they aren't involved in the kidnappings, to present their alibi to the citizens of Belarus."

Among the disappeared are former Interior Minister and Lukashenko opponent Yuri Zakharenko, who went missing in May 1999; opposition politician Viktor Gonchar and his friend, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, who vanished together in September that year; and television cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky.

On Friday a Russian journalist, Pavel Sheremet, said he had evidence to support the stories about the existence of death squads in Belarus.

Asylum

He said he had been told by Belarus's former general prosecutor, Oleg Bazhelko, that President Lukashenko knew of the plans to kill three of the men who disappeared.

However, the president had not been aware of plans to murder Mr Zavadsky, Mr Sheremet said.

Vladimir Goncharik
Vladimir Goncharik: Presidential challenger
Mr Sheremet was himself the subject of an international outcry after he was imprisoned in the 1990s for filming a report in off-limits territory on the border of Belarus and Lithuania.

Presidential challenger Vladimir Goncharik said on Friday that there was no proof that Mr Lukashenko was involved in setting up death squads, but he added that he thought there soon would be.

This spring two former investigators, Dmitry Petrushkevich and Oleg Sluchak, publicly accused the government of creating death squads.

They fled to the United States in May, saying they feared for their lives, and received political asylum.

The US State Department said their allegations were credible.

Mr Lukashenko's autocratic style, and his persecution of political opponents and independent media have made him an outcast in the West.

However, he remains widely popular in his own country due to his populist style and efforts to preserve the Soviet-era social safety net.

See also:

01 Aug 01 | Europe
Belarus leader accuses OSCE
22 Jun 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Belarus stuck in a timewarp
07 Jun 01 | Europe
The disappeared of Belarus
13 Jan 01 | Europe
Belarus courts US foes
19 Jun 98 | Europe
Alexander Lukashenko: a profile
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