The United States has expressed deep regret at Azerbaijan's decision to ban international radio stations from broadcasting on local stations beginning New Year's Day.

Azerbaijani officials say the ban will apply to the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Russia's Europa Plus.

A State Department spokesman said Tuesday that the media groups play a crucial role in supporting democratic debate in Azerbaijan.  He said the ban will be a serious setback to freedom of speech.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA and RFE/RL, said it deplores Azerbaijan's decision, adding that the real losers in this situation are the Azerbaijani people.

Azerbaijan says the move brings the radio stations in line with a long-standing law barring them from presenting foreign broadcasts.

But it says VOA and the other broadcasters still will be available on the Internet, by satellite, and by short-wave radio.

RFE/RL says the ban means it will lose 90 percent of its Azerbaijani audience.  It promised to find other ways to bring uncensored news to the country.

International rights groups accuse Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government of suppressing media freedoms while presiding over an oil-fueled economic boom.  

Last week, Azerbaijan's parliament approved a ruling party proposal to stage a referendum next year on scrapping presidential term limits.