AFP February 1, 2011, 4:15 am
BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Union and United States slapped a new raft of sanctions on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and his inner circle on Monday as punishment for a post-election crackdown on the opposition.
The announcement triggered a swift vow of retaliation from the regime in Minsk, which promised to respond with "proportionate" but unspecified measures.
Although Belarus freed at the weekend a second opposition candidate who was among hundreds of protesters jailed for crying foul after a presidential election, the move was not enough to earn it a reprieve from the West.
At a meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers decided to reinstate a travel ban against Lukashenko that had been suspended two years ago in a bid to encourage democratic reform in the former Soviet state.
The sanctions were imposed for the "fraudulent presidential elections" of December 19 and the "subsequent violent crackdown on democratic opposition," the ministers said in conclusions calling for the release of jailed protesters.
By slapping sanctions on 158 people, the ministers expanded on measures taken in 2006 against the regime for a previous crackdown. At the time, the list included Lukashenko and 40 associates.
The new list also included two of Lukashenko's sons, Viktor and Dmitry, Defence Minister Yury Zhadobin and the head of the country's secret police, Vadim Zaitsev.
The EU stopped short of imposing wider economic sanctions against the Belarus state, as called for by Sweden and Poland, because others did not want to make the people of Belarus pay.
But Brussels will not cut all contact with Minsk: Foreign Minister Sergei Martinov and Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Semashko are not on the sanctions list, a European diplomat said.
"We want to leave some channels open," the diplomat said. "Among the bad guys in Belarus, the foreign minister is not the worst one."
The Belarussian government did not say what type of retaliatory action it could take, although some Russian gas supplies to Europe flow through Belarus.
"It is not our choice to have tensions with the European Union," the foreign ministry said in a statement, vowing "adequate and proportional measures" in order to "strengthen Belarus's sovereignty and to preserve stability."
The EU had held careful dialogue with Minsk in recent years and even suspended a travel ban on Lukashenko in 2008 in a bid to encourage reform.
In Washington, the State Department said it was also imposing new sanctions in response to what it termed a "brutal crackdown".
"The disproportionate use of force and initial detentions of hundreds of demonstrators" among other offences by the Minsk government "oblige the United States and others in the international community to act," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a statement.
The US said it planned to "significantly expand" the number of officials banned from travelling to the United States but without giving an exact number.
It also revoked licences that had temporarily authorised Americans to engage in transactions with two subsidiaries of the largest state-owned petroleum and chemical conglomerate in Belarus.
Lukashenko, in power for 16 years, was re-elected with 80 percent of the vote in an election denounced as fraudulent by the opposition and that saw rival candidates arrested. Three such figures are still behind bars.
Human rights activists accused authorities in Belarus on Monday of emulating Myanmar's junta by denying two senior opposition figures access to the news or telephone while under house arrest.
Vladimir Neklyayev, 64, one of five presidential candidates charged with instigating riots on December 19, and Irina Khalip, the journalist wife of another presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikov, were freed from prison on Saturday and ordered detained in their homes.