More Belarus dissidents released

The European Union and United States have welcomed the Belarus authorities' release of two dissidents regarded by the West as political prisoners.

Sergei Parsyukevich and Andrei Kim were released from jail on Wednesday, reportedly on the orders of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

Another prominent dissident, Alexander Kozulin, was released last week.

The EU and US said they hoped ties could now improve with Belarus, which critics label a dictatorship.

The UK ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould-Davies, told the BBC that Belarus now "no longer has any internationally recognised political prisoners".

The EU Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said she was "delighted" by the news.

"This news comes at a critical time as Belarus prepares for parliamentary elections next month. I very much hope the positive momentum will continue and allow the European Union and Belarus to rapidly develop closer relations," she said.

A US state department spokesman, Robert Wood, said "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 US and Belarus.

Strained relations

President Lukashenko's relations with Western nations have been frosty in recent years, as he has stifled dissent, breaking up opposition rallies and exercising tight control over the media.

The US and EU have imposed visa bans on Mr Lukashenko and a number of his top aides.

Mr Kozulin was jailed for five-and-a-half years in 2006 for staging protests against President Lukashenko.

Mr Lukashenko had defeated Mr Kozulin in an election that international observers said was severely flawed.

The UK ambassador said the prisoner release was "a welcome and important step," as the EU had long requested it.

"We hope there will be further progress, building on this achievement. The next step will be the conduct of the parliamentary election on 28 September," Mr Gould-Davies told the BBC News website.

Some election observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are already in Belarus.

Senior Belarus officials are due to attend a major investment forum in London in November, Mr Gould-Davies said, adding that it would be the first such UK-Belarus business forum.



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