US Congressmen visit Belarus, authoritarian President Lukashenko

US Congressmen visit Belarus, authoritarian President Lukashenko Minsk - A group of US Congressmen on Tuesday were in Belarus on Tuesday for meetings with authoritarian President Aleksander Lukashenko.

The visit by the US legislators marked a step towards a thaw in relations between Minsk and Washington, which until recently enforced wide-ranging sanctions against Belarus for Lukashenko's poor human rights record.

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), one of the US legislature's leading human rights activists, headed up the American group during the one-day visit.

Representaive Christopher Smith (Republican, New Jersey) an author of legislation promoting the development of democracy in Belarus, and mandating sanctions if democratic activities are repressed by the Belarusian regime, also was a member of the US delegation.

Belarus in past years, during rock-bottom relations with the US government, blocked entrance visas for then-US Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

The US among other measures banned travel by Lukashenko and most of the Belarusian leadership to US territory, and froze Belarusian company accounts in US banks.

The US embassy in Belarus currently works with a minimum staff of five diplomats, reduced from more than 30 personnel because of expulsions ordered by Lukashenko.

"We are prepared to return to a dialogue," Lukashenko said in remarks to Minsk reporters. "We need to reject old fears and stereotypes and look at our relations anew."

The US should cancel Smith's Act for Belarusian Democracy mandating sanctions for allegedly undemocratic acts by the Belarusian government, he added.

Lukashenko over the last twelve months has made minor concessions to US demands he loosen pressure on the Belarusian opposition, releasing opposition leader Aleksander Kozulin from prison in 2008.

Other moderating tactics have included a reduction in state persecution of independent Belarusian media and religious groups, and lighter sentences to persons convicted of demonstrating in public without a state-issued license. (dpa)