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US Says Envoy to Remain in Belarus Despite Expulsion Threat

The State Department said Friday U.S. ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart is still at her post despite a "strong suggestion" by authorities in Minsk that she return to Washington. Belarus authorities are angry over U.S. sanctions aimed at prodding the authoritarian European country to ease political controls. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department says it does not consider the so-called "suggestion" that Stewart leave to be tantamount to an expulsion order, and the department says the U.S. envoy has been instructed to remain in Minsk pending a review of the unusual situation.

U.S. officials said the episode began Friday when the Belarusian foreign ministry called in ambassadors from European (OSCE) countries to complain about U.S. policy toward Belarus and to threaten the expulsion of the ambassador.

Ambassador Stewart was barred from that session. But she met afterward with Belarusian officials, who are said to have strongly suggested that she return home for consultations, and also told her that travel restrictions were being considered for other U.S. diplomats.

Briefing reporters, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said Stewart consulted officials in Washington and was advised to remain at her post pending clarification. "She is in Minsk, and will remain in Minsk while we continue to review the situation. It's important, we think, to have our embassy there in Minsk, and to have high-level diplomatic representation there to engage with the Belarusian government on a number of concerns including some of the ones you've heard us speak about - the release of all political prisoners, as well as the other issues concerning us about Belarus's actions in a variety of places."

News reports from Minsk said the latest strain in the relationship was spurred by the imposition of new U.S. sanctions against the country's petrochemical industry.

Both the United States and European Union have imposed wide-ranging sanctions to try to prod the government of President Alexander Lukashenko to ease curbs on the opposition and news media.

Spokesman Casey noted that the State Department welcomed the recent release from jail of several political activists, but that the Minsk government's refusal to free others, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, is preventing a breakthrough in relations.

"We are appreciative of the fact they have released several of the political prisoners. And we in fact noted at the time that if they were to release the remaining political prisoners, very specifically Mr. Kozulin, then we might be in a position to engage with them, and begin a dialogue on how we might be able to improve relations. But frankly, if the Belarusian government wishes to shoot itself in the foot, they're welcome to do so," he said.

The Belarus government did release Kozulin briefly last month to allow him to attend his wife's funeral, but then sent him back to prison amid international criticism.