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    U.S. Ambassador to Belarus leaves Minsk

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    The U.S. Ambassador to Belarus left Minsk for Washington on Wednesday, the U.S. embassy said on its website.

    MINSK, March 12 (RIA Novosti) - The U.S. Ambassador to Belarus left Minsk for Washington on Wednesday, the U.S. embassy said on its website.

    Late last week, Belarus advised the U.S ambassador, Karen Stewart, to leave the capital, Minsk, and recalled its ambassador from Washington for consultations over new sanctions against its national petrochemical company, Belneftekhim.

    Belarus reiterated on Tuesday its demand for Stewart to leave.

    "Ambassador Stewart's absence is temporary, and she remains the U.S. Ambassador to Belarus," the embassy said, adding that Washington's policy toward Minsk remained unchanged.

    In mid-November last year, the U.S. introduced sanctions against Belneftekhim, and froze the assets of its U.S. subsidiary. Belarus said the moves breached a bilateral trade deal designed to give better access to Belarusian goods and services.

    Alexander Lukashenko, the controversial Belarusian leader dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, pledged last year to retaliate in the economic sphere and threatened Stewart with expulsion from Minsk.

    He also said the U.S. sanctions were caused by Minsk's decision to start oil production work in Venezuela. In December, a joint Belarusian-Venezuelan oil production company was opened in the South American country, with plans to produce about 7 million tons (51.45 million bbl) of oil annually. 40% is to go to Belarus and 60% to Venezuela.

    The U.S. and the European Union have accused the Belarusian leader of clamping down on dissent, stifling the media and rigging elections. Lukashenko, who was re-elected to a third term in 2006, is currently barred, along with other senior Belarusian officials, from entering the U.S. and the EU.

    "The U.S. Embassy expresses its support for the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people. Following the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the United States stands ready to explore steps to improve our bilateral relations," the U.S. embassy website statement also reads.

    The main Belarusian opposition figure, Alexander Kozulin, is currently serving a 5 1/2 year prison sentence for organizing protests against Lukashenko's reelection.

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