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Page last updated at 17:28 GMT, Monday, 13 October 2008 18:28 UK

EU to let Belarus leader travel

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in Kyrgyzstan
Alexander Lukashenko will now be allowed to travel to the EU

The European Union has decided to lift its travel ban on President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in an attempt to encourage democratic reform.

Mr Lukashenko and other officials will be able for six months to visit the EU.

EU foreign ministers also ended travel sanctions, though not an arms embargo, against energy-rich Uzbekistan.

But after hours of discussion, they stopped short of resuming partnership talks with Russia, which were suspended over the conflict in Georgia.

The EU last week welcomed Russia's pull-out from buffer zones next to Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said "problems remain" over whether Russia is fully in compliance with a ceasefire deal.

He said it would be wise to wait for the start of a peace conference in Geneva this week and for more evidence of withdrawal on the ground, before committing to a resumption of talks with Russia.

Russian rivalry

Belarus has been labelled "Europe's last dictatorship" by the US - but the West has been encouraged by the release of political prisoners.

"We want to show that progress is being rewarded," said the EU's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The EU should not "forego a possibility to have political leverage", she added.

Only a few Belarusian officials, believed to have been involved in the disappearance of political opponents, remain affected by the travel ban, the EU presidency said.

However, freezes on the assets of Belarusian officials in Europe will remain in place.

Not all European countries were convinced sanctions on Belarus should be eased.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said that last month's parliamentary election, in which all the seats were won by politicians loyal to the president, was as "lousy" as usual in Belarus.

But the BBC's European affairs correspondent Oana Lungescu says the EU feels it has little option but to strengthen ties with its eastern neighbours - over which Russia is trying to reassert its influence - even when some of them do not entirely live up to democratic expectations.

The EU also scrapped travel sanctions imposed on Uzbek leaders after a bloody crackdown on protesters in 2005.

The foreign ministers noted the recent release of human rights activist Mutabar Tojibaeva, but said they remained seriously concerned by the human rights situation in Uzbekistan.

And they promised an ambitious new agreement boosting ties with the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova, strategically placed between the EU and Ukraine.


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