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US Evaluating Ties With Belarus

The Bush administration is denying media reports that it is ordering Belarus to close its embassy in Washington as well as its consulate in New York, but is not ruling out such actions in the future. VOA's Michael Bowman has details from Washington.

Amid rapidly-deteriorating relations between Minsk and Washington, recent weeks have seen Belarus scale back its diplomatic presence in the United States. In addition, the former Soviet republic has ordered roughly half of the U.S. diplomatic staff serving in Belarus to leave the country.

Media reports quote unnamed U.S. officials as saying the Bush administration has informed Belarus that it must close its embassy in Washington and its consulate in New York - a drastic step that would signal a break in relations between Washington and Minsk.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said no such action has been taken, although he confirmed that consultations over the future of bilateral relations have been held.

"We have told them that we have very serious concerns about this step that they have taken, and that means we need to think very carefully about our future and their future diplomatic presence in our respective countries. But we have not made any decisions at this point," he said.

At the same time, Casey did not rule out future action.

"I am not saying that there will not be further action," he said. "There are probably some other shoes that will drop [developments that will materialize] in this process. But at this point we have not made a decision to formally ask them, or informally ask them, to reduce staff further."

The Bush administration has been a severe critic of the government of president Alexander Lukashenko, pressuring Belarus to release political prisoners or face possible sanctions. Washington has imposed sanctions on a state-controlled petroleum and chemical processing company over Belarus' treatment of critics and dissidents.

Belarus has accused the United States of meddling in its internal affairs.