EU freezes assets of Belarus leader, 35 officials


MOSCOW -- The European Union imposed a freeze yesterday on bank accounts and other financial assets of President Alexander Lukashenko and 35 other senior officials in Belarus, along with their families or proxies, in retaliation for a rigged presidential election in March and the crackdown on government opponents that has continued in its aftermath.

The freeze follows a ban on travel to the EU's 25 member states; the United States also officially imposed a travel ban earlier this week. The Bush administration has also warned that it would freeze Lukashenko's assets but has not done so.

The immediate effect is unknown, because it is unclear whether Lukashenko has bank accounts in Europe or the United States, and if so, how much money they might contain. He has mocked the asset freeze, as he has the visa ban. Even before the election, he denied having assets abroad, as officials did again this week when the European Union signaled its decision.

"Take this money, if you know that there is any there," Lukashenko said before the election in typically defiant remarks in a televised interview. "There is nothing to get Lukashenko for. Understand?"

Lukashenko, in office since 1994, won a third term with what officials said was 83 percent of the vote; the leading opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, received 6 percent, a result broadly disputed by Lukashenko's critics in Belarus and by U.S. and European officials.

Milinkevich welcomed the asset freeze as an important new lever against Lukashenko's government, one that harmed senior officials but not the broader population, as economic sanctions would.

"Even if they do not manage to find such accounts, it is effective because it has a strong moral impact on officials," he said in a telephone interview from Belarus.

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