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U.S. and European officials warn Belarus after crackdown

VIENNA (Reuters) - The new head of Europe’s top rights watchdog and a senior U.S. official urged Belarus on Thursday to free those imprisoned after disputed elections, warning that sanctions could be on the horizon.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is being forced to leave Belarus after it criticized the conduct of the December 19 vote and condemned detentions and attacks on opposition demonstrators and independent journalists.

Nearly 700 protesters and reporters were arrested during a night of demonstrations, dispersed violently by riot police.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, whose country took over the OSCE’s rotating chairmanship from January 1, said he would continue to urge Belarus to change its ways and warn it of the diplomatic consequences.

“They need to release all the prisoners, give them proper medicine, to allow the doctors to come and see them,” Azubalis told reporters at OSCE headquarters in Vienna.

He called on Belarus to let the OSCE stay, saying he viewed Minsk’s recent conduct with “deep regret.”

Belarus has said the OSCE’s work is finished so it has no reason to stay. The government has the right to revoke the OSCE’s permit or refuse to renew it under Belarussian law.

The European Union warned Belarus on Wednesday it faced reimposition of sanctions. EU diplomats have said the bloc may reinstate a visa ban on President Alexander Lukashenko and other Belarus officials.

“If we do not see any significant progress in Belarus, Lithuania’s position will be that some sanctions are unavoidable,” Azubalis said.

“We have said to our (Belarussian) friends, you still have time to avoid some strict measures,” he later added.

“POLITICAL PRISONERS”

In Budapest, Philip Gordon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said the EU and the United States should make it “very clear” to Belarus that business as usual could not go on as long as members of the opposition and peaceful protesters were detained.

“In these circumstances, that is to say, their continued detention, we would be obliged to consider them political prisoners,” he said in a speech.

Gordon said the U.S. would consider shortly whether to reimpose sanctions on Belarus, eased two years ago after the release of political prisoners.

“We will be obliged to reimpose those sanctions if there is not a change in the coming days,” he said.

Gordon said travel bans on President Lukashenko and other officials would have a greater effect if widely imposed, and expressed hope the EU would consider financial freezes and review Belarus’s participation in the eastern partnership with the bloc.

The 27-member bloc imposed sanctions on Belarus after a disputed ballot in 2006 but suspended their application in 2008 with the aim of encouraging democratic reforms.

While the EU and United States have condemned the election process and arrests, neighboring Russia, an OSCE heavyweight, has supported Lukashenko.

Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs in Budapest; editing by Andrew Roche

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