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Belarus Frees High-Profile Opposition Activists

Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov is greeted by supporters after being released from a prison and arriving in Minsk, April 15, 2012.

Belarus has released a former presidential candidate and his campaign manager from prison, following crippling economic sanctions Western nations slapped on the Minsk government for widespread human rights abuses.

Andrei Sannikov, who challenged authoritarian incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko in 2010 elections, was released late Saturday. His campaign manager Dmitry Bondarenko was freed Sunday. Sannikov was serving a five-year prison term for organizing protests in 2010 against widely-perceived election fraud. Bondarenko was serving a two-year term.

Hours after gaining his freedom, Sannikov arrived Sunday at a Minsk railway station and thanked his supporters.
"I still don't know yet which world I'm in. I thank you all. I think that all your solidarity, all your support -- it has all indeed saved me," said Sannikov upon arriving in the Belarusian capital.

Both Sannikov and Bondarenko were arrested, along with hundreds of others, after police broke up protest rallies that erupted in Minsk after voting ended in December 2010 and Lukashenko claimed victory. Western observers called the election deeply flawed.

President Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994, claimed to have won 80 percent of the 2010 vote.

Four other presidential candidates were also prosecuted and handed prison terms for their roles in the 2010 protests.

The releases of Sannikov and Bondarenko follow new sanctions imposed by the European Union on the Lukashenko government, which has long been the target of Western ire for its widespread and documented rights abuses. Late last month, EU foreign ministers agreed to freeze the assets and block bank accounts of nearly 30 Belarusian companies. Twelve Belarusian officials were also hit with travel sanctions.

Some analysts say the Lukashenko government is using the releases to curry favor with the West, as a counterbalance to neighboring Russia's enormous economic influence on the impoverished country of 10 million residents.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.