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EU lifts travel ban on Belarus leader, others

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Oct. 13, 2008, 5:58 p.m. | World — by Reuters

Reuters

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union suspended travel bans on Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and dozens of other officials on Monday as a reward for freeing political prisoners, but kept some sanctions in place. In a further move to warm ties with former Soviet republics key to the bloc's aim of diversifying its energy supply routes, EU ministers also ended most sanctions against gas-rich Uzbekistan after citing human rights progress in the Central Asian state, and pledged deeper ties with Moldova.

EU foreign ministers suspended for six months the visa ban imposed on Lukashenko after he was accused of rigging his 2006 re-election, together with restrictions on other officials.

"He is free to travel," an EU diplomat said of Lukashenko, whose government was branded "the last dictatorship in Europe" by the United States in 2005.

But ministers maintained asset freezes on top Belarussians and upheld the travel ban on election commission head, Lidia Yermoshina, to show disappointment over a September election in which the opposition was shut out of parlaiment. Western observers said the poll fell short of international standards.

A total of 41 officials had been covered by the travel bans. Diplomats said that aside from Yermoshina, four officials would also continue to be banned because of their alleged role in the "disappearances" of political activists.

In Minsk, veteran opposition figure Anatoly Lebedko said he was satisfied with the suspension of the travel bans -- as activists had recommended last week to a top European envoy.

"You have to start dialogue from somewhere," he said. If authorities took new steps to entrench democracy, "we will support further reductions and the lifting of sanctions".

WARMER RELATIONS

Relations with the ex-Soviet republic and Brussels have warmed since August, when Belarus freed the last three detainees considered political prisoners and declined to follow Russia in recognising breakaway regions of Georgia as independent.

Several EU states, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Portugal had been reluctant to lift the ban on Lukashenko, given the conduct of last month's election, described by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt as "profoundly lousy".

But Germany has argued that the EU could best achieve its objectives of democracy and human rights through dialogue and the French EU presidency invited Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov to the talks in Luxembourg.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner met Martynov on Monday..

"We have to have carrots and sticks...this is the right approach. For them to do something, we also have to do something," she said.

Analyst Yaroslav Romanchuk of the Mises institute in Minsk, said EU leaders clearly sought direct dialogue with Belarus.

"This is another attempt to speak directly with Alexander Lukashenko in order not to isolate Belarus in the context of the Russia-Georgia conflict," he said.

The EU also did away with some sanctions imposed on gas-rich Uzbekistan in 2005, including visa bans on officials after the killing of demonstrators in the town of Andijan that May.

Separately, the EU ministers agreed to negotiate with the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova what they called an "ambitious new accord" on ties that would steps to boost trade with the EU.
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