Brussels - European Union foreign ministers will decide whether to slap sanctions on Belarus at their January 31 meeting, a top official in Brussels said Wednesday.
'The EU (is) looking into appropriate measures in response to the post-election events, with a view to decisions being taken at the Foreign Affairs Council of January 31,' the bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
She spoke after separate meetings in Brussels with Belarus' Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov and representatives of the opposition, including the daughter of Vladimir Neklyaev and the sister of Andrei Sannikov, two presidential candidates under arrest.
Separately, in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said sanctions against Belarus were a possibility in the aftermath of the regime's latest crackdown on dissidents.
'We both agreed that given the situation in Belarus, it will unfortunately have to be discussed again whether we'll have to revive sanctions that we really should have put behind us. It's very regrettable,' Merkel said after a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Belarus held elections on December 19. Sitting strongman Aleksander Lukashenko immediately claimed a sweeping victory for a fourth mandate, in a poll that was declared unfair by international observers.
In the evening of that same day, police used violence and mass arrests to disperse crowds of people protesting against the outcome. Several opposition leaders were beaten up and detained in the process.
The events undermined efforts by the EU to nudge Lukashenko - dubbed 'the last dictator of Europe' by the European Parliament - towards greater democratic openness.
A diplomat told the German Press Agency dpa that a group of countries - including Poland, Sweden, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands - wanted the EU to react immediately by reinstating a travel ban against Lukashenko and his allies.
The bloc had first suspended the measures two years ago in a bid to foster political dialogue with the country, and had last confirmed that stance in October.
Another group led by Italy, which was said to also include Finland, the Baltic countries, Slovakia, Spain and Portugal, preferred to wait until January 31 to give Belarus a chance to mend its ways before the EU sanctions kick in.
Source in Brussels said the group wanted to make sure that a 'critical engagement' with Belarus authorities would be maintained, backed by conditional offers on issues such as the relaxation of visa policies and support for civil society.
'Some want to close the door to Belarus and throw away the key, we want to offer a more balanced package,' the source said.