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Most US Diplomats Leave Belarus Amid Rising Tensions

Eleven U.S. diplomats have left Belarus following the recent escalation in diplomatic tensions between Washington and Minsk.

Saturday's departures left just four American staff at the U.S. Embassy in the Belarusian capital.

Authorities in Minsk announced Wednesday that they had ordered 10 American diplomats to leave Belarus within 72 hours, in a mounting dispute between the two countries about civil liberties and human rights in Belarus.

The United States has called the Belarusian order unjust and said that officials in Washington are considering a wide range of options in response.

The United States and the European Union have imposed wide-ranging travel and economic sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko's government due to its poor record on human rights and fair elections.

Despite speculation that Belarus might be ordered to close its diplomatic offices in the United States, State Department officials in Washington say there has been no final decision on that issue. And for the time being, at least, the United States is keeping its embassy in Minsk open.

Belarus denies it is guilty of widespread human-rights violations, as Western critics have alleged. Mr. Lukashenko has said Washington must lift sanctions against the Belarusian state-owned oil and chemical company, Belneftekhim, if the two countries' relations are to improve.

The United States has indicated that a resumption of dialogue might be possible if Belarus releases from prison Alexander Kozulin. The eastern European nation's most prominent political prisoner is serving a prison term of five and one-half years for involvement in protests.

Some information for this report provided by AP and Reuters.