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'Better a dictator than gay,' Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko says

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President Alexander Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994.

BERLIN -- Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus, on Sunday criticized EU politicians who have threatened him with sanctions and in an apparent riposte to the German foreign minister's branding him "Europe's last dictator," said: "Better to be a dictator than gay."

Guido Westerwelle is Germany's first openly gay minister.

European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels on Friday called for new measures to pressure the Belarus president over alleged human rights abuses.

In spite of Lukashenko's attack -- which seemed an apparent riposte to Westerwelle -- the German foreign minister said on Monday he would not flinch from seeking to improve human rights in Belarus.

Westerwelle responded on Monday: "This statement speaks for itself." He added: "I'm not going to retreat from my engagement on human rights and democracy in Belarus one a single millimeter."

Chancellor Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert also criticised Lukashenko's comments on Monday.

"Unfortunately (the comment) very clearly shows the position that the Belorussian president takes in relation to basic rights," he said. "It's interesting to find out this way that Mr Lukashenko also now classes himself as a dictator.

"That is the view that the federal government reached some time ago and on which the Belorussian president delivers proof almost daily," he added.

Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media.

Lukashenko said Belarus would give a strong reaction to any sanctions, according to local news agency Belta.

"This is absolute hysteria," Belta reported him as saying. "And as you can see, at the forefront there are two types of politicians ... one lives in Warsaw, another in Berlin."

"Whoever was shouting about dictatorship there ... when I heard that, I thought: it's better to be a dictator than gay."

Belarus opposition leaders arrested after riots

European leaders said any new sanctions should target those in Belarus who are responsible for human rights violations and repression of civil society, as well as people supporting Lukashenko's government or benefiting from it.

Tit-for-tat expulsions
Poland, Belarus's direct neighbor, has played a leading role in formulating EU policy towards Minsk -- often drawing fire from Belarus for doing so.

The call for sanctions followed a diplomatic spat between the EU and Belarus last week, when EU pressure on Minsk escalated into tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

Belarus expelled the EU ambassador in Minsk and recalled its own envoy from Brussels after the EU imposed sanctions on 21 Belarussian judges and police officers. In response, the bloc's 27 capitals agreed to temporarily withdraw their own ambassadors.

The EU sanctions target the authoritarian country's repression of political opposition, including frequent jailings.

They date back to the December 2010 presidential elections, in which more than 700 people — including seven candidates — were arrested in the wake of a massive protest against alleged vote fraud. Lukashenko was declared the winner.

Lukashenko has criticized homosexuality in the past. Last year he said he "did not like gays."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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