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The European Union has lifted almost all sanctions on Belarus, including those against President Alexander Lukashenko, paving the way for closer relations. An arms embargo, however, remains in place.
Despite criticism from human rights activists, most of the European Union's economic sanctions against Belarus will be permanently lifted, agreed EU foreign ministers during a regular meeting in Brussels on Monday.
"There is an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to develop on a more positive agenda," the foreign ministers said in a joint statement.
Restrictive sanctions on 170 Belarusian officials, including the country's strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, were lifted following improvements in the east European nation's human rights record.
An arms embargo, however, will remain in place for another 12 months.
The bloc's ministers recognized that Lukashenko delivered on his promise to release the last political prisoners he had detained. They called it a "long sought step."
Belarus' Foreign Ministry welcomed the EU's decision, saying: "(This) clearly proves that only dialogue is the most effective tool for settlement of disputes," ministry spokesman Dmitry Mironchik said in a statement.
"This decision marks an important phase on the way towards full normalization of relations and opens new possibilities for broadening comprehensive interaction between Belarus and the EU," the statement said.
A 'good compromise'
In October, the EU already ended travel bans and asset freezes against the 170 individuals and have now decided to make the decisions permanent.
Four men involved in "unresolved disappearances" of political opponents will also remain blacklisted, an EU source told news agency AFP.
"I think that what we have on the table today is a good compromise," said Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who lobbied for maintaining the sanctions against Minsk.
The remaining sanctions make it easier to leverage pressure on Minsk should the human rights situation once again deteriorate, said an EU diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Dubbed Europe's "Last Dictator" by the United States and in power since 1994, Lukashenko's political prisoner release was hailed as a major step forward for the former Soviet state.
Rights groups still worry that Belarus continues to fall short in the areas of democracy and human rights, including the existence of the death penalty, a practice which is opposed by the EU.
rs/ (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)