WASHINGTON (AP) _ The United States granted political asylum Friday to two opposition party leaders from Belarus.

The head of the Belarusian Popular Front, Zenon Poznyak, and the party's press secretary, Sergei Naumchik, released a document from the Immigration and Naturalization Service allowing them to remain in this country indefinitely.

``It has been determined that you have established a well-founded fear of persecution were you to return to your country,'' said the letter, signed by the director of the local asylum office in suburban Arlington, Va.

At the INS, spokesman Daniel Kane said people involved were free to comment, but it was government policy to never confirm, deny or discuss political asylum decisions.

The men said they left their homeland because their lives were endangered by the hard-line regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. They issued a written statement decrying ``destruction of Belarus' nationhood,'' including the closing of native-language schools and historical and linguistics institutes and curbs on press freedoms.

Interviewed through an interpreter in the office of Rep. Martin Hoke, R-Ohio, who had intervened on the dissidents' behalf, Poznyak said ``Belarusian democracy got a boost'' from the U.S. decision.

``We have proven that that there is political persecution in Belarus,'' he said.

In Belarus, the acting head of the opposition party, Lyavon Borshchevsky, said, ``This will sound from every rostrum. In the U.S. they respect human rights and know what it is when a people are persecuted and suffer.''

Poznyak has long been the leading nationalist opposition figure in Belarus.

The Belarusian government has denied the men's lives were at risk and accused them of trying to split society in the former Soviet republic.

But Lukashenko has shown little tolerance for dissent, responding to anti-government demonstrations with a wave of arrests and the closure of newspapers.

Last week, he announced plans to cancel a parliamentary election and go ahead with a referendum on extending his powers.

Earlier this month, Oleg Sluka, an aide to Lukashenko, said the asylum-seekers were ``destabilizing the political situation in the republic by trying to present themselves as exiles.''

Located between Russia and Poland, Belarus became independent with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko has signed agreements for closer ties with Russia and restored the country's Soviet symbols.

The Popular Front and other opposition parties say the treaty with Russia undermined Belarus' independence and turned the nation into a virtual Communist province.