EU extends freeze on visa restrictions for Belarus

BRUSSELS, Nov 17 (Reuters) - The European Union on Tuesday prolonged a freeze on visa restrictions for top officials from Belarus, but opted not to lift the sanctions entirely due to a lack of progress on political reform.

The European Union imposed visa bans on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and dozens of other officials after he was accused of rigging his 2006 re-election. The bans were suspended in October 2008 in order to encourage reforms.

A statement approved by EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels said the suspension would be extended until October 2010 to encourage further democratic advances.

A freeze on Belarus government assets in the European Union remains in place, as do visa restrictions on four officials linked to the disappearance of political activists, and on the head of the country's election commission.

The EU statement said the recent release of political prisoners had raised the possibility of further cooperation between the EU and Belarus, which is a key transit route for Russian energy supplies to the 27-nation bloc.

But the threat of sanctions will not be scrapped entirely given Belarus's lack of progress on democracy. The EU wants to see electoral reform and movement on human rights, including an end to crackdowns on political activity and the media.

The EU statement said the sanctions would be reviewed by the Council of EU member states in October, and added: "The Council may decide to reapply or lift travel restrictions at any time, in the light of actions by the Belarusian authorities in the sphere of democracy and human rights."

Lukashenko said in September he would not be forced into reforms by the European Union. He said he saw no need to change the country's electoral law and that he may run for a fourth term at presidential elections due in early 2011. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Matthew Jones)


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