US Sees Better Ties With Belarus After Freeing Of 2 Prisoners

WASHINGTON (AFP)--The release of two political prisoners by Belarus Wednesday set the stage for a "significant" improvement in ties with the United States, the State Department said.

Businessman and activist Sergei Parsyukevich and youth leader Andrei Kim were freed four days after the release of opposition leader Alexander Kozulin.

"The release of these individuals, combined with what we hope will be further positive steps, offers the real possibility of a significant improvement in relations between the United States and Belarus," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

In light of this development, Wood said, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, David Merkel, would travel to Minsk Wednesday for meetings with Belarussian officials and members of the democratic opposition.

Parsyukevich and Kim were arrested at the start of the year for participating in demonstrations that brought together pro-Western democracy campaigners and small-business people angered by new regulations.

Both men were considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and their release had been demanded by Western governments.

Kozulin, a leader of the Social Democratic Party who opposed Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko at a 2006 presidential election, was released Saturday after serving part of a five-and-a-half-year sentence.

Lukashenko, whom the West has dubbed Europe's last dictator, is seeking a positive appraisal from Western vote monitors at a parliamentary election due Sept. 28, as he maneuvers between long-time partner Russia and the West.

Lukashenko held talks Tuesday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Russian leader's Black Sea coastal residence in Sochi. The Belarus leader praised Moscow's military operation in Georgia, Russian news agencies reported.

His visit came after Moscow's ambassador to Minsk sharply criticized the Belarussian leadership for maintaining a "modest silence" over Russia's actions in Georgia.



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