U.S. Warns of More Sanctions on Belarus

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus -- A top U.S. diplomat on Wednesday warned of new sanctions against Belarus if authorities refuse to release what he said were political prisoners, and dropping charges against others.

David Kramer, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, told reporters the Belarusian government must take concrete steps to avoid a further deterioration in U.S.-Belarusian relations.

After talks with diplomats, government officials and opposition leaders, Kramer called for the "releasing of all political prisoners, and I mean all political prisoners, and dropping charges against others."

"In absence of those steps I fear that relations could deteriorate," he told reporters. "We have additional steps we can take to increase the pressure upon the government. I hope they won't be necessary."

Last year, the United States and the European Union slapped travel sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist for more than a decade, and other top government officials.

The Belarusian leader has quashed dissent and opposition groups and built a Soviet-style, centrally controlled economy that has been heavily reliant on cheap Russian energy supplies.

In recent months, Belarus has lost some of Moscow's support as Russia has forced a series of loss-inducing energy contracts on Minsk. Lukashenko has since made conflicting signals about wanting to ease ties with the West.

Kramer did not give specific names of political activists he said were being held, but opposition groups say at least 10 have been detained by Belarusian authorities, among them Alexander Kozulin, who ran in last year's flawed presidential election.

The country's beleaguered opposition has vowed to hold a rally in Minsk on Thursday marking the 21st anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. Much of southern and eastern Belarus was irradiated from the fallout that ensued from the plant's fire and explosion.