BRUSSELS, March 16 (RIA Novosti) - European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to extend the suspension of a travel ban on the president of Belarus as part of moves to encourage progress in democracy and human rights.
The ban on Alexander Lukashenko entering EU countries was imposed in 2006 in protest against election fraud and human rights violations. However, the 27-nation bloc suspended the ban last October, after several political prisoners were freed in Belarus.
At their meeting in Brussels, the ministers opted to keep other sanctions against Belarus, including an arms embargo, in force for another year. Although the ban has been suspended, its end date has been extended for a year.
The ministers said in a joint statement that the travel ban was being held off "to encourage the adoption and implementation of further concrete measures towards democracy and respect to human rights" in Belarus. However, sanctions could be re-enforced at any time if necessary, the statement warned.
The ministers welcomed "certain positive steps" taken by Belarus since October, in particular Belarus's cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but expressed continued concern over "the human rights situation in Belarus and the recent cases of violation in this area."
"The European Union remains ready to deepen its relations with Belarus subject to progress made by Belarus," the statement said.
Lukashenko, once branded "Europe's last dictator" by the United States, has been president of the former Soviet state since 1994. The EU has stepped up efforts to engage Belarus since last summer's war between Russia and Georgia, which raised fears of growing Russian influence in post-Soviet Europe.