VIENNA (Reuters) - The United States and Europe's main security and rights body accused Belarus of preventing an activist from leaving the former Soviet republic to attend a meeting in Vienna to discuss democratic elections on Thursday.
The U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Viktor Kornienko, co-chair of the "For Fair Elections" initiative, was denied the right to travel to the Austrian capital and that it was deeply concerned.
"The United States must protest this latest disregard for fundamental freedoms by Belarus," U.S. Ambassador Ian Kelly said in a statement.
Kelly and his senior staff would now not take part in the two-day meeting as long as Kornienko could not participate, it said. Belarusian officials including one from the country's election commission were due to attend the discussions, an OSCE official said.
Belarusian diplomats in Vienna were not immediately available for comment. The country is a member of the 56-nation OSCE, which promotes democracy and human rights.
Rights groups call Belarus the last dictatorship in Europe. President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, tolerates little dissent and has not hesitated to jail opponents.
Belarus is due to hold a parliamentary election on September 23.
The OSCE chairperson-in-office, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, said Kornienko had been invited to attend a meeting on democratic elections and election observation.
Gilmore "expressed his strong regret about the Belarusian authorities' decision to prevent a Belarusian civil society activist from travelling" to the OSCE meeting, a statement from the Vienna-based body said.
"I urge the Belarusian authorities to reverse this decision as soon as possible," he said.
(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Sophie Hares)