By Toby Vogel
Ashton urges Belarus to release political prisoners, while diplomats say additional measures will follow.
The European Union is to impose a sweeping travel ban against the Belarusian regime at the end of the month unless Belarusians detained in protests against last month's rigged presidential election are released.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, told Sergey Martynov, the foreign minister, in Brussels yesterday (12 January) that the Belarusian government had to release political prisoners and drop prosecutions against them if it wanted to avert the measures.
Ahead of a meeting of member states' foreign ministers in Brussels on 31 January, diplomats are preparing a travel ban against Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, and as many as 100 officials involved in electoral fraud and in a post-election crackdown.
Diplomats suggested that additional measures, such as asset freezes and suspending Belarus from the EU's Eastern Partnership, were also being considered.
Stefan Fule, the European commissioner for the neighbourhood policy, told a special meeting of MEPs yesterday that the Belarusian government's response would be "measured in hours and days, not weeks".
Hundreds of people, including most of the challengers in last month's presidential poll, were arrested by security services, and several of them were savagely beaten. Four of the seven presidential challengers who were arrested remain in custody, including Uladzimir Neklyayev, whose daughter Eva told MEPs yesterday: "You have the key to my father's prison."
"All European institutions should rethink their relations with Belarus," Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament, said yesterday after meeting Belarusian opposition figures. Gunnar Hokmark, a Swedish centre-right MEP, said: "There is no room for Belarus in the Eastern Partnership."
Italy is opposed to new measures against Belarus, arguing that it is important to keep channels of communication open. But a diplomat suggested that Italy was unlikely to veto the travel ban in the face of overwhelming support for the measure among the member states.
Portugal and Spain are also sceptical about travel bans and other sanctions, but are not expected to oppose them outright. A previous set of travel bans was suspended in 2008, when Belarus took cautious steps toward the EU.
The member states are also considering measures to help the opposition and ordinary citizens, for example by waiving visa fees - something Poland and Lithuania have already done. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a former presidential candidate, told MEPs yesterday that the EU should isolate Lukashenka's regime while making it easier for ordinary Belarusians to travel to the EU.