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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus President Praises Austria for Hospital Aid

MINSK, Belarus -- Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, often at odds with the West over his human rights record, had rare words of praise for a Western state when he opened a hospital for children with Chernobyl-related diseases co-funded by Austria.


The former farm boss, one of the few European leaders to be excluded last week from a summit of the Council of Europe, blasted neighboring Russia and Ukraine on Monday for being slower than the West to help victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.


"Neither Russia nor Ukraine came to us first. ... We were host to a foreign catastrophe. It was not our Belarussians who built this station, worked at it and blew it up. Yet, unfortunately, the fallout fell on us," he said Monday at the opening of the hospital outside Minsk.


The Chernobyl nuclear plant was built under Soviet rule in northern Ukraine. In April 1986, an explosion severely damaged the No. 4 reactor and sent a cloud of radioactivity spewing into the air.


The wind carried more than 70 percent of the fallout from the blast to Belarus, and more than a fifth of the population of 10 million was affected in some way by the disaster.


Liberal Belarussian leader Stanislav Shushkevich initiated the hospital project in the days when Minsk enjoyed good relations with the West. The cost of the project was split almost evenly between Vienna and Minsk.


The gleaming blue and white structure is home to children with diseases such as leukemia and cancer.


It was a rare chance for Lukashenko to host Western guests on a happy note. This year, they have mostly come complaining about human rights violations and asking him to change his authoritarian style of rule.


Lukashenko said European parliamentarians and the Council of Europe that barred only Belarus and rump Yugoslavia from last week's summit on human rights in Strasbourg, France, were constantly asking him to disband parliament. The legislature was formed without elections after a much-criticized referendum that he won last November awarded him sweeping powers.


Austrian Environment Minister Martin Bartenstein, who attended the ceremony, restricted comments to health issues.


But Lukashenko did not hold back in his criticism of Russia and Ukraine, while staying silent about the West.


He accused Russia and Ukraine, which until recently shared a power grid, of holding back surplus electricity generated at Chernobyl's sole working reactor from power-starved Belarus.