Belarus: Lukashenko sworn in for fourth term

Alexander Lukashenko was once described by the US as Europe`s last dictator.

Minsk: President Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in for a fourth term on Friday, in a lavish ceremony boycotted by the West over a crackdown on the Belarus opposition after his disputed election victory.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 16 years and was once described by Washington as Europe`s last dictator, has imprisoned some of the opposition`s most prominent figures in a crackdown after the polls.

In his oath-taking at the immense Palace of the Republic in Minsk, Lukashenko pledged to serve the Belarussian people and also "respect and preserve the rights and freedom of people and citizens”.

But in a stern speech attended by thousands in the vast main hall, he then warned that the "time for revolutions and revolts was over" and vowed to protect the country from threats at home and abroad.

He praised Belarussian voters for "not ceding to political provocations and the hysteria of politicians and venal journalists".

Ahead of the highly choreographed ceremony, Lukashenko was driven through the eerily deserted streets of Minsk in a convoy headed by a fleet of nine motorcycles.

He was accompanied into the Palace of the Republic by his son Kolya. The boy, believed to be aged around six, has become a constant presence at Lukashenko`s side.

Tens of thousands of people had protested on election night in Minsk on December 19 against what they perceived as unfair elections that gave Lukashenko a landslide victory.

Police detained more than 600 people and four of the candidates who stood against Lukashenko are still being held, along with some of the country`s leading liberal journalists and activists.

Following the ceremony, police broke up a protest of about 40 people gathered in October Square outside the Palace of the Republic, arresting five people, local rights group Viasna said.

A few demonstrators carried candles, while one had taped over her mouth, said Viasna.

No ambassadors from the 27-nation European Union attended the ceremony, choosing instead to quit the country for the day, an EU spokeswoman said.

"They are attending an event in Lithuania," Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, said.

The embassy in Minsk of Hungary, which holds the EU presidency, said the event involved top rights organisations and discussed the situation in Belarus after the polls.

Washington`s charge d`affaires Michael Scanlan, meanwhile, was away from Minsk on a trip to the provincial city of Grodno, where he was handing over American books to a local library, the US embassy said.

The envoys missed out on an extraordinarily kitsch variety show held after the swearing-in, watched by Lukashenko and Kolya from a special box and featuring pop singers in folk costume and dancers dressed in pink.

Since polling day, relations between the European Union and Belarus have gone into deep freeze with some EU ministers suggesting it was a waste of time trying to deal with Lukashenko.

Bureau Report