BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Union is preparing to restore a travel ban against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko following a post-election crackdown on political opponents, diplomats said Friday.
EU ambassadors decided at a meeting in Brussels to launch a procedure to reinstate a visa ban on Lukashenko and several of his associates which was suspended in 2008, a European diplomat told AFP.
"We are heading towards lifting the suspension." another diplomat said.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 16 years, won the December 19 presidential election with nearly 80 percent of the votes.
Following a rally in Minsk to protest the results of the election, which Western observers said fell well short of international standards, the regime arrested more than 600 people including several opposition candidates.
The EU slapped visa bans on some 40 top Belarussian officials including Lukashenko in 2006 following repressive measures against the opposition.
But the travel restrictions were lifted two years later as opposition members were freed, in hopes this would push the regime towards change.
In October, EU foreign ministers renewed the suspension of the travel ban on Lukashenko for another 12 months, although they left in place other sanctions, targeting financial and other holdings in the EU.
EU ambassadors decided on Friday to ask their experts to review the possibility of adding names of individuals to the sanctions list.
A wide consensus was reached among the 27 envoys to "send a strong signal to Belarus and demand the immediate release of all people detained for political reasons," a diplomat said.
Talks will resume next week at the level of experts before another meeting among ambassadors. A final decision could be taken at ministerial level, either during a meeting in Brussels or by writing.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, whose country holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, said on Wednesday that he would support "all sanctions which affect the political establishment of the country."
He stressed that "a clear political message must be sent to Minsk, reflecting the EU common policy."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a joint statement last month threatening to review ties with Belarus in the wake of the crackdown
"Taken together, the elections and their aftermath represent an unfortunate step backwards in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights in Belarus," Ashton and Clinton said.
"The people of Belarus deserve better," they said.
Last week, Belarus ordered the closure of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) office in Minsk, in an apparent response to the transatlantic security group's stinging criticism of its presidential polls.
The United States and the EU on Tuesday both slammed Belarus for ordering the closure of the OSCE office, and urged it to release all those protesting the elections.