The European Union says the release of political prisoners in Belarus represents "important progress" in efforts to improve relations.

The authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, unexpectedly pardoned all six political prisoners on Saturday evening, including former opposition presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich.

Statkevich was greeted at the Minsk train station late Saturday by hundreds of opposition activists who chanted "Hero."

He connected his release with the Belarusian government's need for credits to help it survive the economic downturn.

The EU and United States had set the freeing of political prisoners as a condition for easing economic sanctions and travel bans imposed on Belarusian officials.

The releases "represent important progress in the efforts toward the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus," EU officials said in a statement late Saturday.