Belarus hails "step foward" after US partially lifts sanctions

Brussels MapMinsk - Belarus welcomed on Wednesday a decision by the US to partially lift sanctions on Minsk's state-owned oil firm Belneftekhim.

The decision to unfreeze some foreign bank accounts held by Belneftekhim subsidiaries could hint at a thaw in long-frigid relations between Washington and the authoritarian regime of Belarus' President Aleksander Lukashenko.

Belarus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement "greeted the understanding of our American colleagues," referring to the US decision to lift the sanctions on some foreign bank accounts for the Minsk-headquartered Belneftekhim.

The US Treasury Department froze all of Belneftekhim' subsidiary company bank accounts in November 2007, citing human rights violations by Lukashenko.

The ban extended to accounts in Germany, Latvia, Russia and China and came close to shutting down Belneftekhim's overseas operations - a key foreign currency earner for Lukashenko's cash-strapped government.

The US government lifted the bank account freeze on two Belneftekhim offshoot companies earlier this week, pending the results of a full review of Belarus' human rights record to be completed in June.

The US decision made possible the return to Belarus of millions of dollars of Belneftekhim earnings at a time when the Lukashenko government is confronting a rare budget deficit, observers said.

The US decision "was a step forward," said Andrei Popov, a foreign ministry spokesman. "It is obvious to us that our relations (with Washington) must be improved."

Relations between Belarus and the US have been at rock-bottom for years, with NATO officials calling Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator," and Lukashenko routinely accusing the CIA of plotting to overthrow him.

Recent disputes between the two countries include a travel ban on Lukashenko and other senior Belarusian officials to most NATO nations, mutual expulsions of diplomats on spying charges, and Belarus' 2008 arrest of a US human rights activist.

Lukashenko, faced with an economic crisis at home and increasing hostility from Russia next door, in recent months has called for better relations between Belarus and the West, but has refused to retreat from his government's tough stance on domestic opposition and independent media. (dpa)