U.S. to cut diplomatic presence in Belarus amid growing tension
MINSK, March 25 (RIA Novosti) - The United States will reduce the number of its embassy staff in Belarus in line with Minsk's demands as bilateral relations hit a new low, a top U.S. diplomat in the ex-Soviet state said on Tuesday.
Belarus demanded last week, citing the Vienna Convention, that the number of the U.S. diplomatic staff be decreased to ensure that both countries have equal numbers of diplomats.
"The United States views this demand as groundless and inconsistent. But it will abide by it and the number of diplomats in Belarus will be reduced to 17 by the end of the day on March 27," Jonathan Moore, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Belarus, said.
The U.S. employs 38 diplomats in Belarus, and Minsk has 18 diplomatic staff in Washington. Belarus has accused Americans of interfering in its domestic affairs.
Tensions between the two countries heightened after Washington imposed sanctions last November against Belarus's state-controlled petrochemical company Belneftekhim and froze the assets of its U.S. subsidiary. American companies were banned from dealing with it.
Belarusian longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed by Washington "Europe's last dictator" for clamping down on dissent and stifling the media, is currently barred, along with other senior officials, from entering the U.S. and the European Union.
Earlier this month, Washington recalled its ambassador from Belarus following pressure from the country's authorities. The Belarusian ambassador to the U.S. had been summoned home earlier.
The U.S. Embassy in Belarus was reported to have suspended issuing visas to Belarusians.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed that staffing levels would be reduced, regretting that Belarus "has taken a path of confrontation and isolation rather than a path of engagement and democratic reform."
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov told reporters on Tuesday that relations with the U.S. can only be improved if Washington lifts economic sanctions, which he called "economic blackmail, banned by international law."
"The key to getting out of this situation is the lifting of sanctions," he said.
Popov said that the U.S. State Department "is leading the international and American public astray, trying to present the Belarusian side as being responsible for the current situation in Belarusian-American relations."
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