The United States on Tuesday joined the European Union in calling for Belarus to release everyone detained since the Dec. 19 presidential elections and expressing regret over the decision by the Belarusian government to close down the office of Organization for Security and Co-operation In Europe (OSCE) in Minsk.
State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley and Darren Ennis, the spokesperson for EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, in a joint statement stated their governments "regret the decision by the government of Belarus to terminate the mission of the OSCE's office in Minsk."
Calling for "the immediate release of all detained," the statement noted, "the elections and their aftermath -- particularly the continuing detention of presidential candidates and new detentions and raids targeting the media -- represent a step backwards in the development of democratic governance in Belarus."
Both spokesmen, however, offered assistance to Belarus "in meeting its OSCE commitments in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Earlier, during his daily briefing, Crowley told journalists,"we're very concerned about the fact that I believe every single person who ran for high - ran against President (Alexander) Lukashenko is now in custody. This violates all international norms."
He added, "We have a variety of options available to us as we evaluate the implications of this."
Asked to comment on those options, Crowley said, "I'm not going to prejudge anything, but obviously we have options regarding travel, we have options regarding our economic relationship, we have options regarding assistance that we do provide to countries."
Countering journalists' comments that financial and travel sanctions were already in place against former farm boss Lukashenko and his regime, Crowley said, "We are reviewing what's happened in Belarus, we're reviewing the policy implications of this, and we'll evaluate what steps are appropriate in light of this step backward by Belarus."
Commenting on U.S. consultations with Russia, who along with Kazakhstan has formed a economic zone with Belarus, Crowley said, "We don't believe that we need to be competitors in that region, but obviously, what has happened in Belarus is a violation of international norms and a concern to us, and we think it should be a concern to Russia as well."
On the chances of Belarus pulling out of the nuclear material deal that Secretary Clinton struck in Kazakhstan, Crowley said, "We would hope that Belarus does not do that. That is in - that's in the Belarusian interest as well as the regional and global interest."
Earlier, OSCE chairperson Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, said in a statement that his office had started consultations to find a solution that would enable the OSCE to continue its work in Belarus.?
"I deeply regret that the Belarusian authorities did not extend the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk. The OSCE Chairmanship will work together with Belarus and the other OSCE participating states to continue the organization's important work in the country. We have started informal consultations to find an agreement acceptable to all," Azubalis said.
There was scathing criticism from OSCE on the landslide win of incumbent Lukashenko in the presidential elections and the subsequent governmental crackdown on the opposition.
Tony Lloyd, who was heading the OSCE observer mission in Belarus during the election, said in a post-election statement, "The counting process lacked transparency," adding, "The people of Belarus deserved better. And, in particular, I now expect the government to account for the arrests of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists."
Announcing the decision on New Year's eve, Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said in a statement, "The Belarusian side has taken the decision not to prolong the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk."
The OSCE has maintained a presence in Minsk since 1998. The mandate of the office must be renewed annually by the 56 OSCE participating states and it expired on Dec. 31.