Belarus' Lukashenko inaugurates nuclear power plant amid safety concerns

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko inaugurated a nuclear power plant on Saturday that some neighbouring countries have opposed because of safety concerns.

Built by Russian state-owned firm Rosatom and financed by Moscow with a $10 billion loan, construction of the power plant near the city of Astravets, in the western Hrodno region, was vigorously opposed by Lithuania, whose capital Vilnius is just 50 kilometres (31 miles) away.

"This is a historical moment. The country will become a nuclear power," Lukashenko said in comments broadcast on state television. "The Astravets nuclear power station is a new step into the future, towards ensuring the energy security of the state."

Belarus began operating the plant earlier this week, prompting Lithuania to halt Baltics power trading with its neighbour.

Latvia said on Thursday said it had restarted imports of power from Russia to the Baltic states, which had been suspended over concern that some of the electricity was produced at the Astravets facility.

The plant's construction has also been divisive among Belarusians, who suffered greatly from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Andrei Sannikov, a Belarusian opposition figure who was imprisoned after running against Lukashenko in 2010, wrote on Twitter the plant was a "geopolitical weapon" for Lukashenko and the Kremlin against the European Union and a "radioactive danger for Belarus and Europe."

The inauguration comes as Belarus has been rocked by mass protests and strikes since an Aug. 9 presidential election the opposition says was rigged.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has rejected the accusations and dismissed opposition calls for him to step down.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Mike Harrison)