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Belarus Expels U.S. Ambassador, Recalls Its Ambassador to the U.S.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Friday demanded that the U.S. ambassador leave the country and recalled its ambassador to the U.S. over Washington's economic sanctions against the ex-Soviet nation.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States was "deeply disappointed" by the move.

"If they do not wish our ambassador to remain in country, our ambassador will leave," Casey said. "They have said they are recalling their ambassador, which is a very good thing, because their ambassador would certainly not be welcome here."

It was not immediately clear whether U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart had left the country. The U.S. Embassy refused to comment and Casey said State Department officials in Washington had yet to discuss the matter with Stewart.

Washington has slapped travel restrictions on Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and members of his inner circle, as well as financial sanctions against Belarusian authorities over their crackdown on opposition and free media.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said its demand that the U.S. ambassador leave the country had been prompted by U.S. sanctions imposed last fall against Belarus' state-controlled oil-processing and chemicals company, Belneftekhim.

The U.S. last year froze the company's assets and barred American companies from doing business with it.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said Belarus had warned the United States in advance that its response to the sanctions would be "harsh."

The United States and the European Union, which also introduced economic and travel sanctions against Belarus, have made clear that Lukashenko must free political prisoners and allow more democratic freedoms before sanctions can be lifted and relations normalized.

A spokesman for President Bush called Friday's move unjustified and said it "only takes them further away from Europe and the rest of the world."

"It is unfortunate that Belarus continues its repressive actions against its own citizens and President Bush and the United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus as they seek to live in freedom," said Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Lukashenko began signaling a desire for better relations with the West following Russia's decision to sharply hike prices for oil exports to Belarus — exports on which the country's Soviet-style, centrally controlled economy had long depended. He cast the release of several opposition activists this year was a goodwill gesture to the West.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the releases of opposition activists as positive steps, but urged Lukashenko to free another opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin, as a condition to start a dialogue on normalizing ties. Belarusian authorities allowed Kozulin to attend his wife's funeral, but then put him back behind bars.

Kozulin, who challenged Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential election, was arrested during a postelection protest.