Putin says Russian police force ready to help Belarus leader, but not needed yet

MOSCOW/MINSK, Aug 27 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday the Kremlin has set up a reserve police force to support Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko but it would not be used unless the unrest there got out of control, Interfax news agency reported.

Putin said Russia saw no need for now to use Russian forces in Belarus over the political crisis that followed a disputed Aug. 9 presidential election. Moscow felt the situation was normalising, the RIA news agency reported.

The former Soviet republic was plunged into turmoil following the election, which the opposition says was rigged to ensure that Lukashenko’s 26-year rule was extended further.

Security forces have beaten protesters in the street and arrested thousands in a bid to stamp out mass demonstrations and strikes. Lukashenko denies electoral fraud.

“We have of course certain obligations towards Belarus, and the question Lukashenko raised was whether we would provide the necessary help,” Putin said.

“I told him Russia would fulfil all its obligations. Alexander Grigorivich (Lukashenko) asked me to create a reserve police force and I have done that. But we agreed this would not be used unless the situation got out of control.”

Maria Kolesnikova on Thursday was the latest opposition figure to be questioned by state investigators in a criminal case against a Coordination Council formed last week with the stated aim of negotiating a peaceful transfer of power.

Lukashenko has called the council an attempt to seize power illegally. Two of its leaders were jailed this week but Kolesnikova walked free after being questioned, saying she had signed an agreement not to divulge details.

In Berlin, European Union foreign ministers sought sanctions against Belarus to pressure Lukashenko to hold new elections.

Eager to support the protests against Lukashenko’s rule, EU ministers are considering travel bans and asset freezes on up to 20 people responsible for the crackdown on demonstrators.

Writing by Angus MacSwan Editing by Mark Heinrich