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Belarus's Lukashenko meets with Pope, may meet Berlusconi


ROME, April 27 (RIA Novosti) - Belarus's president, Alexander Lukashenko, met with Pope Benedict XVI on Monday ahead of a possible meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Pope Benedict XVI gave a 25-minute Vatican audience to the leader of the ex-Soviet republic.

During their meeting, Lukashenko expressed hope that the pope would visit Belarus. His comment was an apparent reference to a possible meeting between the leader of the Catholic Church and the head of Belarus's Orthodox Church to ease mutual mistrust.

An unidentified diplomat in Rome said on Sunday that Lukashenko would also attend a dinner to be hosted by Berlusconi and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini later on Monday.

The influential Corriere della Sera paper earlier said "the visit could be an important first step for one of Europe's last dictators to get out of his corner."

The current trip is Lukashenko's first official visit to Europe for 14 years.

Lukashenko had been banned from travelling to the European Union over his 2006 reelection, which Brussels claimed was rigged. The ban was suspended last year after Lukashenko freed several political prisoners in line with demands from the 27-nation bloc.

Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994, was criticized for clamping down on dissent and human rights.

As another sign of thaw in relations between Belarus and the EU, Lukashenko has been invited to attend the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Prague next month.

The program is designed to improve human rights and the rule of law in six former Soviet republics - Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia - and address trade and visa issues and ease their energy dependence on Russia.

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