MINSK Flags flew at half-mast and TV and radio channels dropped entertainment programs in Belarus on Wednesday in mourning for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez whose anti-U.S. policies made him a natural ally for hardline President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, himself an outcast in the West because of his clampdown on the opposition at home, ordered three days of mourning, describing Chavez in a fulsome tribute as "a close and reliable friend, our brother".
Chavez, who died on Tuesday, made five visits to the former Soviet republic and sent oil to Belarus in 2010 when Russia reduced supplies of the fuel to the country's refineries during a period of tension between Lukashenko and Moscow.
In an oblique reference to Chavez's anti-U.S. policies, Lukashenko said the 58-year-old leader, who died after a two-year battle with cancer, "had freed (his country) from the political and economic yoke of foreign states".
"President Chavez, with a strong and firm hand, led his country to freedom and happiness," he said, praising the Venezuelan leader for extending a helping hand to Belarus in its hour of need.
"Chavez (was) one of the greatest state and public figures of today, an unflinching hero, a fiery patriot and fighter for independence," Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, is under Western travel sanctions which bar him from going to the United States and the European Union, but he visited Venezuela three times during Chavez's rule.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Heavens)