Belarus Marks Nuclear Withdrawal
MINSK, Belarus (AP) _ The last former Soviet republic with nuclear weapons _ besides Russia _ today celebrated the transfer of its last warheads to Moscow.
Two other former republics, Ukraine and Kazakstan, already have turned over their nuclear arms to Russia to be dismantled.
Top Belarusian officials and Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov attended the ceremony outside the western town of Lida, the Interfax news agency reported.
It came amid political turmoil in Belarus, where authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko convened a new parliament Tuesday that declared the existing one moot. He prevailed on the new body to pass legislation withdrawing impeachment efforts against him.
In a weekend referendum, the president won broader powers and his term was extended to 2001. Critics said Lukashenko intends to tighten his already iron grip.
Contradictory statements from Belarusian and Russian officials about the weapons withdrawal had led to confusion in recent days about the nuclear status of Belarus, which used to have 81 SS-20 and SS-25 missiles.
Belarus had agreed to send its nuclear weapons to Russia by the end of this year. Lukashenko then said he might keep some of the missiles to protest NATO’s anticipated eastward expansion. His threat has not materialized.
Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency, citing Russia’s strategic rocket command, said Belarus shipped the last 18 nuclear warheads to Russia on Saturday, though the missile launchers themselves remained.
Belarus’ Security Council spokesman Vasily Baranov said the last missile launcher would be pulled out today, the Interfax news agency reported.
However, other reports in recent days suggested that some launchers would stay.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said U.S. diplomats would try to clarify what was being done with the warheads and the missiles.
The United States has provided more than $100 million to Belarus this decade to dismantle its nuclear missiles and convert defense industries to civilian use.
Meanwhile, rival parliaments convened at two separate sites today, and legislative opponents of Lukashenko voiced fears they would soon be evicted by force.
Opposition parliament speaker Semyon Sharetsky said he was informed that his telephone line would be cut.
``The republic is living through its tragic days,″ Sharetsky said after meeting with an observer mission from the Council of Europe. ``If this continues, it’s hard to say what will happen in the country.″
The chief of the observer mission, Polish lawmaker Tadeush Iwinski, said Sunday’s referendum was not democratic.
``The way President Lukashenko organized the referendum ... jeopardizes the future of democratic development in Belarus,″ he said. ``We give full support to Sharetsky and parliament in this building.″
The opposition had said it would press ahead with impeachment efforts. But after the new legislature voted Tuesday to withdraw the impeachment bid, the Constitutional Court judges decided to drop proceedings.
About 20 opposition parties and movements formed a Congress for the Defense of Democracy and issued a public appeal Tuesday for Belarusians to unite against the president.