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Europe

US Diplomats Leave Belarus Under Pressure

Eleven US diplomats have left the country's embassy in Belarus only hours before a Belarusian government order to leave within 72 hours expired, the Interfax news agency cited the US embassy as saying.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is hitting back at the US over sanctions

The staff in the embassy will be at a bare minimum with only four US citizens remaining as relations between Washington and the former Soviet republic hit a new low over the country's human rights records and sanctions imposed by the US.

Last month, Belarus ordered 10 US diplomats to leave because Washington had not complied with a demand to reduce the staff at the Minsk embassy from 17 to six.

"All 11 diplomats, 10 of whom were declared persona non grata, together with their families have left Belarussian territory and entered Lithuania," a representative of the embassy who travelled with the diplomats told the Reuters news agency.

Aleksander Lukashenko, Belarus' authoritarian president, declared the US State Department employees "persona non grata" on Wednesday.

Sanctions row

A Belarus police officer patrols near the US Embassy in Minsk

A Belarus police officer patrols near the US Embassy in Minsk

Already-bad relations between Minsk and the US began plummeting in November after Washington hit Belarus' national energy company Belneftekhim with targeted trade sanctions as punishment for Lukashenko's poor human rights record.

In March, Belarus asked the US ambassador to leave after Washington issued a clarification of US sanctions that apply to the national oil products firm Belneftekhim. Belarus said the move amounted to an expansion of sanctions, although Washington denies that.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1984, is considered by many one of the last dictators in Europe. He has long faced allegations of crushing dissent, including freedom of speech and assembly. He has been barred from the United States and the European Union over accusations that he rigged his 2006 re-election.

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