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Tuesday, 14 November, 2000, 16:45 GMT
Belarus's missing persons
Protestors with photographs of missing people
These women are looking for the "disappeared"
In a country known for its intolerance of any opposition, a disturbing new trend is emerging - opponents of the government are beginning to disappear.

Russian TV is carrying out its own investigation into the disappearance of five well-known figures who have vanished.

Belarusian former Interior Minister Yuriy Zakharenko
Former minister Zakharenko - changed sides to the opposition
All were at one time close to Belarus's President Aleksandr Lukashenko, and then earned his disapproval.

Yuri Zakharenko was interior minister, but left the government and joined the opposition. He vanished on 7 May 1999.

His wife Olga says police told her there was no hope of finding him.

"You know who is behind this," she says she was told by investigators.

Former ministers in Lukashenko's government have something of a history of coming unstuck.

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko
President Lukashenko is not amused by opposition
Vasily Leonov was Agriculture Minister from 1994 to 1997. He was critical of President Lukashenko's style of government and resistance to market reforms.

He was sentenced to four years in prison for corruption in January 2000, charges he denies.

And the former chairman of the Central Bank, Tamara Vinnikova, was unexpectedly imprisoned the day after a meeting with Lukashenko.

She was held on unknown charges for 10 months and now lives abroad.

When a man is in jail, everybody knows who put him there and for what.

When a person disappears, there is nobody to make complaints against.

Russian TV investigative reporter Pavel Sheremet

But human rights activists say making someone disappear is much more effective than arresting them.

Viktor Gonchar was the chairman of the Belarus Central Electoral Commission.

He angered President Lukashenko by making a stand over dubious election results. He went missing on 16 September 1999.

Russian TV is especially concerned about the fate of its own cameraman, Dmitri Zavadsky.

Zavadsky was once President Lukashenko's personal cameraman.

Missing TV cameraman
Russian TV cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky - missing since July

He too vanished, on 7 July 2000, after filming a series of reports unflattering to the Belarusian government and its special forces.

President Lukashenko said if he found out who had abducted Zavadsky, he would personally wring their necks.

But Belarus police and investigators have reported no witnesses and no progress in their search for clues.

Russian television's suggestions of human rights abuses in Belarus come at a sensitive time in relations between the two countries.

Belarus and Russia are moving closer to economic and political union. They plan to use a single currency from 2005.

But the Russian media making waves about the "disappeared" is likely to anger President Lukashenko still further.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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14 Jan 00 | Europe
Belarus ex-minister jailed
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