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Belarus seeks staff cuts in U.S. embassy

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus has asked the United States to cut staff at its embassy in Minsk, a week after Washington’s envoy temporarily left the former-Soviet state which the U.S. and European Union says violates human rights.

A statement from the Foreign Ministry said a U.S. diplomat from the embassy had been called in and told of the “urgent recommendation from the Belarussian side that the U.S. embassy in Minsk reduce its number of personnel”.

The ministry did not give a reason for this demand.

Ambassador Karen Stewart’s departure last Tuesday followed two requests that she leave Belarus over what Minsk called new U.S. sanctions against national oil products firm Belneftekhim.

Last year the U.S. ordered its citizens not to deal with the company and said no new action had been taken since.

U.S. officials said Stewart’s departure was for consultations only, and that she remained ambassador to Belarus. Minsk last week also recalled its envoy from Washington.

The United States and the European Union accuse President Alexander Lukashenko of shutting down independent media, jailing opponents and rigging polls, such as his re-election to a third term in 2006. Neither allow him and some officials entry.

Since a dispute with Russia last year, however, Lukashenko has tried to improve ties with the West and courts have released several opposition activists -- moves cautiously welcomed by the

EU.

Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, editing by Sabina Zawadzki and Mary Gabriel

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