EU set to suspend sanctions against Belarus's Lukashenko

BRUSSELS - The EU is ready to suspend sanctions against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in a shift following the release of the country's last political prisoners, European sources told AFP Friday.

The decision to end travel bans and asset freezes against Lukashenko and 150 other people will be taken ahead of October 31, when the current set of measures expires and must be either renewed or scrapped, they said.

But before making a decision the European Union will wait to see how elections go on Sunday in Belarus, in which strongman Lukashenko is set to win a fifth consecutive term.

"This is a gesture in response to the gesture made by the regime when it freed the political prisoners this summer," an EU diplomat told AFP.

A European source meanwhile said it would be a "political signal" from Brussels to Lukashenko, a once close Moscow ally but who has since played one off against the other in pursuit of his own interests.

The sanctions against Lukashenko were imposed in January 2011 over numerous human rights violations. Some of the other sanctions against his regime in the ex-Soviet state date back to 2004.

Once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington for his authoritarian rule, Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.

In a surprise move in August, Lukashenko released from jail six opposition leaders considered the last political prisoners in Belarus.

Among the freed opponents was Mikola Statkevich, a former presidential candidate imprisoned in 2010.

'Re-engage with Belarus'

EU foreign ministers are set to consider the sanctions at a meeting on Monday, the sources said.

Current sanctions include an embargo on arms and equipment which could be used for internal repression, as well as asset freezes and travel bans against individuals.

"We want to re-engage with Belarus," a European source said, adding that the EU was looking for a "critical engagement" based on human rights with the aim of fosetering political and economic links.

Belarussian authorities had already been discreetly informed of the coming suspension of the sanctions, another European source said.

However none of the freed political prisoners has been allowed to take part in this weekend's elections and the opposition have called on Brussels to keep up the sanctions against Lukashenko and his inner circle.

Belarussian writer and dissident Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, said the award would help the fight for freedom of expression in Belarus and Russia.

Lukashenko congratulated her on the prize. Lukashenko's relations with former master Moscow have chilled over the Ukraine conflict even as the country's Russia-dependent economy grapples with a recession.

Earlier this year, Lukashenko made a return to the international scene, hosting Ukraine peace talks in Minsk between pro-Moscow rebels and the leaders of Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia.

The EU still has tough economic sanctions in place against Russia over the Ukraine conflict. They are due to come up for renewal in January.