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Belarus opposition leader released from prison

A former Belarusian opposition presidential candidate jailed since the election 16 months ago has been freed, his wife said Saturday. She said the unexpected release may be a way for Belarus' authoritarian government to try to ease Western pressure.

Andrei Sannikov telephoned Saturday night to say he was on his way home, his wife Irina Khalip told The Associated Press.

There was no immediate official statement on the release or its reason, but longtime President Alexander Lukashenko suggested earlier this month that pardons for political prisoners were imminent.

The United States and the European Union have called for the release of the repressive ex-Soviet republic's political prisoners and imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials.

In February, Belarus reacted to new EU sanctions by ordering its envoy and the Polish ambassador to leave. EU member countries in turn recalled all their ambassadors from Minsk.

Sannikov was arrested when police broke up a massive protest rally hours after voting ended on Dec. 19, 2010. The protesters decried alleged vote fraud in the election, in which Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, won a new term.

Lukashenko has repressed opposition groups and independent news media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands.

The country has suffered a crisis in the past year, with the ruble's value dropping about threefold, and many observers see that, along with the Western pressure, as putting Lukashenko in a tight spot. Khalip said she sees her husband's release as an attempt to ease the pressure.

"For Lukashenko, political prisoners are merchandise. Now a situation has come in which he inflated the price for too long and understood the West wouldn't bargain," Khalip said.

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Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.