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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Diplomat Held by Belarussian Police

MINSK -- Belarussian police detained a U.S. diplomat, the U.S. Embassy confirmed Wednesday, and activists said the authorities' intention was to prevent him from meeting them.

A youth group leader said authorities also detained two pro-democracy activists from Georgia, one of three former Soviet republics where former opposition figures have come to power in the last two years.

The detentions occurred amid fears in the Belarussian government that the opposition may foment political change.

U.S. Embassy political officer Lyle McMillan was held for about 40 minutes on Tuesday, said Galina Skorokhod, an activist in the city of Gomel, where the diplomat was detained.

She said the diplomat had been scheduled to meet with representatives of a variety of nongovernmental organizations in a building where their groups have offices in the city, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk.

Foreign diplomats frequently meet with NGOs to keep abreast of developments in society and to express support for the groups, which often face harassment in authoritarian countries such as Belarus.

Police notified the NGOs on the eve of the meeting that the building was off-limits due to a search for a bomb on the premises.

The venue for the meeting was then moved to a private apartment, Skorokhod said, but police showed up, saying they were carrying out an identification check as part of an operation to detect illegal migrants or criminals. That is when they detained the diplomat, she said in a telephone interview.

"It's obvious that the police's main goal was to break up [our] meeting, which they did," Skorokhod said.

American diplomats expressed concern over the detention and were discussing the incident with Belarussian officials, U.S. Embassy spokesman Alexei Solomakh said.

Officials in Belarus' Foreign and Interior ministries declined to comment.

On Wednesday, two Georgians who took part in the Rose Revolution protests that brought down longtime President Eduard Shevardnadze in late 2003 were detained in Minsk, said Vladimir Kobets, leader of the Belarussian opposition youth group Zubr.

Kobets said he and the Georgian activists, Georgy Kandelaki and Luka Tsuladze, were seized by men in plainclothes and taken to a police station, where Kobets said they were released after questioning.

Kobets said all the Georgians' documents were in order and no reason was given for the detentions. Police and other officials declined to comment.

The U.S. government has been a vocal critic of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department called on the Belarussian government to end the persecution of its political opponents. Over the past two months, Belarus has closed 80 percent of the local offices of three major parties, jailed activists and levied huge fines against the few remaining independent newspapers, acting U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.