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The U.S. Ambassador to Belarus will leave Minsk on Wednesday,
The U.S. Ambassador to Belarus will leave Minsk on Wednesday, the leader of a Belarusian opposition party said.

Late last week, Belarus advised the U.S ambassador, Karen Stewart, to leave the country and recalled its ambassador from Washington for consultations over new sanctions against the national petrochemical company.

Tom Casey, the U.S. State Department's deputy spokesman, said on Saturday that Belarusian authorities had so far not instructed Stewart to leave the country, and that the White House did not expect any changes in the status of its ambassador to the former Soviet republic.

However, speaking on Wednesday, Anatoly Lebedko, who heads the United Civil Party of Belarus, said that, "At a meeting with us earlier in the day, Karen Stewart informed us of the U.S. State Department's decision for her to leave Minsk for additional consultations."

He also added that Belarus had reiterated its demand for her to leave on Tuesday.

"A decision was taken after consultations with Washington for the U.S. ambassador to leave Belarus," Lebedko said, without saying when Stewart would return to the country. He added however that Stewart saw her departure as "temporary."

In mid-November last year, the U.S. introduced sanctions against Belneftekhim and froze the assets of its U.S. subsidiary. Belarus said the moves breached a bilateral trade deal designed to give better access to Belarusian goods and services, as well as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Alexander Lukashenko, the controversial Belarusian leader dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, pledged last year to retaliate in the economic sphere and threatened Stewart with expulsion from Minsk.

He also said the U.S. sanctions were caused by Minsk's decision to start oil production work in Venezuela. In December, a joint Belarusian-Venezuelan oil production company was opened in the South American country, with plans to produce about 7 million tons (51.45 million bbl) of oil annually. 40% is to go to Belarus and 60% to Venezuela.

The U.S. and the European Union have accused the Belarusian leader of clamping down on dissent, stifling the media and rigging elections. Lukashenko, who was re-elected to a third term in 2006, is currently barred, along with other senior Belarusian officials, from entering the U.S. and the EU.

The main Belarusian opposition figure, Alexander Kozulin, is currently serving a 5 1/2 year prison sentence for organizing protests against Lukashenko's reelection.

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