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World - Europe

Belarus shuts off water, power to ambassadors' compound

Diplomats may leave over housing spat

MINSK, Belarus (CNN) -- A spat between neighbors over bad plumbing has turned into a full-scale diplomatic row, threatening to trigger an exodus of international ambassadors from the former Soviet republic of Belarus.

The dispute between Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and his neighbors, ambassadors from 22 countries who live in an elite compound next door, prompted the 15-nation European Union to announce a recall of all of its ambassadors Friday. The United States is threatening to follow suit.

But Lukashenko, often at odds with the West, is showing little concern.

"Ouch! We're hurting diplomats!" he said sarcastically when asked about the dispute by reporters.

The ambassadors live in a residential compound in a pleasant wooded area on the outskirts of Minsk, next to Lukashenko's residence.

His government, saying the compound is in need of sewer and plumbing repairs, asked the diplomats to leave so improvements could be made. But the diplomats, arguing that the Vienna Convention designates the homes of ambassadors as territory of their individual nations, refused, fearing the plumbing work was merely a pretext for Lukashenko to take over the whole compound.

Government officials finally agreed to let the diplomats stay if they were willing to endure some "inconvenience." The diplomats agreed.

Then Friday, the water and electricity were shut off, and workers dug a ditch that prevented any cars from entering the compound. The resourceful French ambassador got home on a bicycle he retrieved from the trunk of his car.

Security presence in the area was also stepped up, with special passes required to gain admittance to the compound. German Ambassador Horst Winkelmann wasn't allowed to bring a guest into the compound, an experience he described as humiliating.

In response, the 15-nation European Union decided Friday that all of its ambassadors will leave Belarus on Monday if the government doesn't relent. The United States is threatening to do the same unless the water and electricity come back on, and the Turkish ambassador has reportedly already headed home.

"The situation is probably without precedent in the recent history of world diplomatic relations," said French Ambassador Bernard Fassier. "Our government is taking the situation very seriously."

Lukashenko claims the diplomatic compound as his own property. The government has offered the displaced ambassadors new apartments in downtown Minsk, cottages 20 miles outside the city, or vacant plots of land on which to build new homes -- offers which have been largely turned down.

However, at least one country, Bulgaria, says it welcomes a move -- though not because of faulty plumbing.

"We would have been moving out of the complex anyway to seek a cheaper place," said Radko Vlaikov, a foreign ministry spokesman in Sofia.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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