Brussels - European Union foreign ministers decided to crack down on Belarus' leaders and offer more support to the opposition and civil society as they met in Brussels on Monday.
In recent years, the EU has offered the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko a cautious rapprochement, suspending a raft of sanctions in the hope of encouraging more democratic behaviour. But that attitude lost favour in December after the regime cracked down on pro-democracy activists.
'In view of these recent events and developments, the Council (of EU member states) has decided to impose travel restrictions and an asset freeze against persons responsible for the fraudulent presidential elections ... and the subsequent violent crackdown on democratic opposition,' ministers said in a joint statement.
Ministers also decided to revive the suspended visa bans and asset freezes on over 100 regime figures, including Lukashenko himself, the statement read.
Diplomats would not say whose names would be added to the list in the new round of sanctions, saying that that would be made public in the EU's official journal. But reports suggested that Lukashenko's sons would be among the new targets.
'The release and rehabilitation of all people detained on political grounds would be an essential element' to any future decision to lift the sanctions, the statement read.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Minsk said Belarus regretted the EU move and called the sanctions 'direct interference in the inner affairs of an independent state.' He said the government would take 'adequate' steps, but did not provide further details.
A number of ministers at the meeting, especially those from countries closest to Belarus, had insisted that the sanctions be matched with moves to make life easier for the Belarusian opposition and non-governmental organizations.
'We should adopt and pass strict measures on official people, and ... we should take the political decision on the fast opening of the European borders to Belarusian civil society,' Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said as he arrived at the meeting.
Lithuania and Poland have already made it easier for Belarusian citizens to obtain visas to their countries, but it would take the agreement of the whole bloc to grant them easier access to the Schengen zone, which covers most of the EU.
That is a sensitive issue, as recent moves to extend visa freedom to Albania and Bosnia led to EU states complaining of a surge in asylum applications from those countries.
'If we take just restrictive measures on officials it's quite easy, but to go through all the bureaucracy of the EU to open (the borders) is a much bigger challenge,' Azubalis acknowledged.
EU ministers decided to compromise on that issue, agreeing that each member state should start by looking at ways to ease Belarusians' access to national visas, and look towards EU-wide visa facilitation in the longer term.
Meanwhile, the bloc is also 'working on measures to provide urgent support to those repressed and detained on political grounds and their families, as well as support to civil society,' ministers said.
The United States on Monday also announced new travel and financial sanctions on Belarusian officials believed to have participated in the violent crackdown on dissidents during last year's presidential election.
The US State Department said the list of Belarusian officials barred from travelling to the United States will be 'significantly' expanded. Those individuals will also be subject to unspecified financial restrictions.
At the same time, the US government would also revoke a ruling that temporarily allowed US citizens to engage in business with two subsidiaries controlled by Belneftekhim, Belarus's largest state- owned petroleum and chemical conglomerate, the State Department said.