EU eyes return to sanctions against Belarus

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union may reinstate a visa ban on President Alexander Lukashenko and other Belarus officials, because of a crackdown on the opposition after December's presidential vote, EU diplomats said on Tuesday.

The 27-member bloc imposed sanctions on Belarus after a disputed ballot in 2006 but suspended their application in 2008 in order to encourage democratic reforms.

EU governments have grown increasingly concerned over human rights violations in Belarus in recent weeks that included the detention of opposition leaders and journalists.

Senior EU diplomats are expected to discuss relations with Belarus in the next few days, and this could lead to the reimposition of sanctions in the coming weeks.

"The majority of EU governments back severing relations with Belarus, in other words, reimposing sanctions," said one EU diplomat.

The German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung cited government sources this week as saying German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among EU leaders pushing for sanctions against Belarus.

In a sign of growing international outcry, press freedom groups also urged Minsk on Tuesday to free dozens of journalists they said are still in custody. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the EU to link its diplomatic relations with Minsk to their release.

On Monday, Belarus freed one of five opposition presidential candidates it has held since the election.

But it has also decided to shut down a mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe after OSCE monitors criticized as "flawed" the vote that handed Lukashenko a fourth term in office.

Lithuania, which took over the OSCE's rotating presidency on January 1, called on Belarus on Monday to reverse the closure of the OSCE mission and release the detained opposition candidates.

But, taking a stance at odds with some of its EU partners, it said a policy of isolating Belarus would not be the right way to persuade Minsk to improve its human rights record.

"Isolation of Belarus has not brought the desired results. Actions of Belarusian authorities against those representatives of the society, media, who took part in demonstrations, and arrests and use of physical power, complicate cooperation with Belarus authorities, but not with the Belarusian people," Lithuanian presidential spokesman Linas Balsys said.

Lithuania said it was taking unspecified "diplomatic steps" to persuade Minsk to change its mind.


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