U.S. threatens to shut Belarus Embassy

Times Staff Writer

The State Department is considering whether to force Belarus to close its embassy in retaliation for the former Soviet republic's expulsion of 10 U.S. diplomats in an escalating dispute, officials said Thursday.

Officials also were weighing whether to close the U.S. Embassy in Minsk after the ejection of the diplomats this week, which State Department spokesman Tom Casey denounced as "unwarranted and unjustified."

The two countries have been taking steps against each other since Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko's government began jailing protesters after widely criticized elections in March 2006.

The U.S. ambassador departed in March; with the latest steps, there are only four U.S. diplomats in Belarus and six Belarusian diplomats in that country's missions in Washington and New York.

"We are considering the full range of options in terms of our respective diplomatic presences," Casey said, charging that Belarus' actions were "solely as a result of the United States' support for democracy and human rights activists."

"There are probably some other shoes that'll drop in this process," he said.

State Department officials in Washington summoned Belarusian diplomats Thursday to tell them about the steps being considered. A U.S. official in Minsk, Belarus' capital, visited the foreign minister to convey the same message.

"This is not an idle threat," a U.S. diplomat said.

Closure of Belarus' embassy would be a highly unusual step. Lukashenko's government often has been denounced by Americans and Europeans as a Stalinist remnant, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called the country Europe's last "outpost of tyranny."

Belarus contends that its human rights record is no worse than that of the U.S.

U.S. and European Union officials, who have charged that Lukashenko manipulated the 2006 election to retain power, have banned him and other top officials from entering their countries.

In November, Washington froze the U.S. assets of a large petroleum processing company that is thought to be controlled by Lukashenko.

U.S. officials have said that they would reconsider their stance toward Belarus if the country released jailed opposition leader Alexander Kozulin, who ran against Lukashenko in the last presidential election. Belarus has refused.

Another issue is the confinement of Emanuel Zeltser, a New York lawyer held since March by the government in Minsk on suspicion of using false documents. U.S. officials contend that the reasons for his arrest are unclear and argue that Zeltser, a diabetic, should be released on humanitarian grounds.



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