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US Calls Expulsion of Diplomats from Belarus 'Unjustified, Unwarranted'

By David Gollust
30 April 2008

The U.S. State Department Wednesday called the Belarus government's decision to expel 10 U.S. diplomats unjustified and unwarranted. The United States will respond to the latest move in a political confrontation with the Minsk government. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department is promising to retaliate for the Belarus expulsion order, which will leave the U.S. embassy in Minsk with just four American staff members and its operations sharply curtailed.

The Minsk government Wednesday issued a list of 10 U.S. diplomats who must leave the country within 72 hours in an ongoing dispute with the United States over human rights and sanctions.

The United States and the European Union have imposed wide-ranging sanctions against the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, a former Soviet official who has run Belarus with an increasingly authoritarian hand.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States is legally bound to comply with the expulsion order and is now considering an appropriate response.

"We told the Belarusians in private, and we will say in public, that we believe this action is unjustified and unwarranted. We want to have a good relationship with Belarus and work to try to improve that. But we are not going to do that and sacrifice principles of pushing for freedom of expression, political freedoms and other freedoms in Belarus," he said.

Bilateral relations have been deteriorating in recent months, with the Minsk government bristling over U.S. sanctions against its state-owned oil and chemicals company.

Staffs at the two countries' embassies in Minsk and Washington have already been trimmed back and U.S. ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart left the country last month after Belarus withdrew its ambassador.

Belarus released some political prisoners earlier this year, and the Bush administration said it would be prepared to begin a dialogue on better ties if former opposition presidential candidate Alexandr Kozulin was freed.

Kozulin was briefly released in February after the death of his wife but ordered back to jail. The United States has also pressed in recent days for the release of Emanuel Zeltser, an American lawyer arrested in mid-March on charges of using false documents.

McCormack said Zeltzer, who is in poor health and reportedly confined in a mental hospital, should be freed immediately on humanitarian grounds.

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