AUTHORITARIAN PRESIDENT Alexander Lukashenko has freed a US lawyer from jail in Belarus, in his latest bid to improve links with the West during a period of strained ties with traditional ally Russia.
Emanuel Zeltser was released late on Tuesday night after receiving a pardon from Mr Lukashenko, the man dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the administration of former US president George Bush.
Mr Zeltser (55) was freed a little over one year into a three-year prison term for industrial espionage and use of false documents, charges that his lawyers and most analysts dismissed as politically motivated. He was arrested at a time of poor relations between Washington and Minsk, following the expulsion of several US diplomats and strong US criticism of Mr Lukashenko, who has emasculated Belarus' opposition parties and free media during well over a decade in power.
"I have problems with my health, I plan to get better. I am not making any plans," Mr Zeltser, a diabetic, said after leaving jail.
Meeting US congressmen on Tuesday - the highest ranking US delegation to visit Belarus in over a decade - Mr Lukashenko said he hoped Washington would swiftly lift sanctions against his regime and major Belarusian companies, after which a US ambassador could return to Minsk.
"We are ready to return to talks about a full restoration of a mutual diplomatic presence, on the condition of the legal cancellation of sanctions against our country," Mr Lukashenko said.
US state department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington "welcomes" the release of Mr Zeltser. "We made it clear to President Lukashenko . . . the only way to improve the relationship between our countries is for him to increase political freedom and respect for human rights," said Senator Benjamin Cardin.
The EU lifted sanctions against Belarus after Mr Lukashenko freed political opponents from jail, and Brussels has included the country in its "Eastern Partnership" aid programme.
Minsk has also asked for financial assistance from the EU after Russian officials refused a request for funding. Moscow has also quarrelled with Mr Lukashenko over energy prices.
The US's punitive measures against Belarusian companies, including a ban on operations with oil company Belfneftkhim, remain in place, and the post of US ambassador remains vacant.