EU to extend freezing of sanctions on Belarus

BRUSSELS, Nov 12 (Reuters) - The European Union will prolong a freeze on restrictions against Belarus next week, but not lift the threat entirely due to a lack of progress on political reform, a draft statement seen on Thursday said.

The European Union imposed a visa ban on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and dozens of other officials after he was accused of rigging his 2006 re-election. But the ban was suspended in October 2008 in order to encourage reforms.

A draft statement due to be approved by EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels next Monday and Tuesday said the suspension would be extended until October 2010 to encourage further changes.

The draft statement said the recent release of political prisoners had opened up the possibility for further cooperation between the EU and Belarus, which is a key transit route for Russian energy supplies to the 27-nation bloc.

But the threat of sanctions will not be scrapped entirely given Belarus's lack of progress on democracy. The EU wants to see electoral reform and movement on human rights, including an end to crackdowns on political activity and the media.

Lukashenko said in September he would not be forced into reforms by the European Union. He said he saw no need to change the country's electoral law and that he may run for a fourth term at presidential elections due in early 2011.

As well as political reforms, the EU wants Belarus to impose a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and move rapidly towards its abolition.

Reporting by David Brunnstrom