U.S. holding off on Belarus sanctions, seeks to coordinate with EU: sources

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The United States has held off on joining Britain and Canada in imposing sanctions on Belarus in hopes the European Union can overcome an internal dispute, paving the way to coordinated U.S. and EU sanctions, four sources said on Wednesday.

The EU vowed in August to impose sanctions on Belarus for alleged fraud in its Aug. 9 election and for human rights abuses since, but Cyprus, one of its smallest members, has prevented that.

Cyprus has maintained it will not agree to the Belarusian sanctions unless the EU also puts sanctions on Turkey because of a separate dispute over Turkish drilling for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Six sources told Reuters last week that Britain, Canada and the United States planned to impose sanctions on individual Belarusians in a coordinated move. Only London and Ottawa followed suit on Tuesday.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, three sources said on Wednesday that Washington refrained because it believed the EU might achieve consensus at this week’s European Council meeting.

One source familiar with the matter told Reuters that a U.S. package, including human rights sanctions, was essentially ready, but the timing of any announcement was uncertain.

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The sanctions aim to impose consequences for the disputed election, which the opposition says was stolen, and for the treatment of protesters in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled for 26 years.

More than 12,000 people have been arrested since Lukashenko, who denies electoral fraud, was named the election’s landslide winner. Major opposition figures are either in jail or in exile.

A Cyprus source said there was a “political agreement” on Turkish sanctions at an informal EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Berlin in August and Cyprus remained ready to implement it, although it was not clear precisely what the source meant.

“It’s not a question of softening or hardening of (Cyprus’) position, the source said.

After the meeting, Germany’s Foreign Ministry said ministers agreed on their “solidarity with Greece and Cyprus” but stressed that constructive dialog with Turkey was vital to resolve “contentious issues in the eastern Mediterranean.”

The U.S. State Department did not directly address why it had not joined Britain and Canada in imposing sanctions, but said it welcomed their having done so and noted U.S. sanctions already applied to 16 Belarusians, including Lukashenko.

“We are coordinating closely with our European partners to promote accountability for those involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus,” said a State Department spokesman on condition he not be identified.

He said Washington backed an independent look at “Belarus’ fraudulent election, the human rights abuses surrounding the election and the ongoing violence by Belarusian authorities” and repeated U.S. calls for the authorities to cease violence against peaceful protesters and to engage with the opposition.

The embassy of Cyprus in Washington and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Nicosia; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)

© 2020 Reuters

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