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World News

Belarus rally chides nuclear plan on Chernobyl date

MINSK (Reuters) - Opposition protesters marched through the capital of Belarus on Saturday to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and denounce plans to build an atomic power station in the ex-Soviet state.

Protesters shout slogans during an opposition rally in Minsk April 26, 2008. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Belarus was the country most affected by the world’s worst nuclear accident and the anniversary is traditionally the year’s biggest rally for opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko, accused in the West of violating fundamental human rights.

A modest crowd of about 2,000 passed along a route approved by authorities leading from the city centre to an outlying square. Police last year beat protesters in Minsk at the end of the annual march.

In neighbouring Ukraine, site of the plant, low-key ceremonies coincided with the time of the fire and blast -- 1.23 a.m. local time.

Protesters in Minsk carried the red-and-white nationalist flag banned by authorities and demanded an end to plans to build the country’s first nuclear power station from next year.

“We oppose the nuclear technology which led to the biggest technological catastrophe of the century,” Levon Barshchevsky of the nationalist Belarussian Popular Front told the rally.

“Building a nuclear plant is very dangerous given our conditions,” said a rally participant who identified himself as Alexander. “The authorities are subject to no control.”

Lukashenko, barred entry to the United States and European Union, said rally leaders threatened national interests.

“These people are not academics, they are political bandits,” Lukashenko, quoted by local news agencies, said in southeastern Belarus, the area worst affected by the disaster.

“They will not exploit this topic. I will not allow it. They are not even politicians -- they are enemies of the people.”

NUCLEAR ENERGY

The Chernobyl station’s last working reactor was closed in 2000, 14 years after the accident. A French company last year won a tender to build a new shelter for the shattered fourth unit.

Fifteen reactors now produce some 50 percent of Ukraine’s electricity and opposition to nuclear power is limited.

Lukashenko quarrelled with Russia over energy prices in 2007 and has sought better ties with the West, especially the EU.

But the opposition’s most recent rally in March was broken up by police and two activists from an opposition movement of small businessmen were sentenced this week to prison terms for assaulting security forces.

Radioactive substances from the blast fell throughout much of Europe. Belarus, downwind from the plant, had about one-quarter of its territory contaminated and some 200,000 residents were evacuated from Ukraine alone.

Estimates of the number of deaths directly related to the accident vary. The World Health Organisation estimates the figure at 9,000 while the environmental group Greenpeace predicts an eventual death toll of 93,000.

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