Belarus expels US ambassador

March 7, 2008 7:22:56 AM PST
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said Friday it has demanded that the U.S. ambassador leave the country and recalled its ambassador in the U.S. over Washington's economic sanctions against the ex-Soviet nation. A spokesman for President Bush called the move "deeply disappointing."

"It is unfortunate that Belarus continues its repressive actions against its own citizens and President Bush and the United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus as they seek to live in freedom," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Washington has slapped travel restrictions on Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and members of his inner circle, as well as financial sanctions against Belarusian authorities over their crackdown on opposition and free media.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said its demand that U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart leave the country had been prompted by U.S. sanctions imposed last fall against Belarus' state-controlled oil-processing and chemicals company, Belneftekhim.

The United States and the European Union, which also introduced economic and travel sanctions against Belarus, have made clear that Lukashenko must free political prisoners and allow more democratic freedoms before sanctions can be lifted and relations normalized.

Lukashenko began signaling a desire for better relations with the West following Russia's decision to sharply hike prices for oil exports to Belarus - exports on which the country's Soviet-style, centrally controlled economy had long depended. He cast the release of several opposition activists this year was a goodwill gesture to the West.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the releases of opposition activists as positive steps, but urged Lukashenko to free another opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin, as a condition to start a dialogue on normalizing ties. Belarusian authorities allowed Kozulin to attend his wife's funeral, but then put him back behind bars.

Kozulin, who challenged Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential election, was arrested during a postelection protest.