By RAF CASERT
Belarus lashed back at the European Union Monday after the EU imposed sanctions on top officials in authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's government.
Hours after the 27 EU foreign ministers said they will organize an asset freeze and visa ban on 156 top Belarus officials in the wake of flawed Dec. 19 elections, Lukashenko's government said the decision would force "Belarus to take proportional and adequate measures."
Later Monday, the United States also expanded its list of Belarus officials subject to travel restrictions, banning business with two subsidiaries of a state-owned Belarus petroleum conglomerate.
Belarus' Foreign Ministry said its response would be "aimed at strengthening Belarusian sovereignty, maintaining stability and consolidating Belarusian society," but was short on specifics.
It also accused EU officials of deliberately ignoring the aggressive actions of demonstrators during election protests and undermining efforts to improve relations between Belarus and the EU.
The EU said the sanctions were taken to protest the jailing of opposition leaders and the violent crackdown following the elections. It stopped short, however, of imposing economic sanctions.
The U.S. State Department's statement called on the Belarus government to release detainees and allow freedom of speech.
The European Parliament called for the application of sanctions against Lukashenko two weeks ago, with the president responding he would be ready with a tough response.
Under Lukashenko, Belarus has retained a Soviet-style state-controlled economy while also repressing opposition activists and independent news media.
He was declared the winner of the December election with nearly 80 percent of the vote, but international observers strongly criticized the count.