The United States abruptly backed down on a decision to order the closure of the Belarusian embassy in Washington and consulate in New York just minutes before American diplomats were to inform Belarus of the move on Thursday, U.S. officials said.
The State Department had planned to notify Belarus of the step, which had been approved by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, in both Washington and Minsk. But officials said they were instructed not to do so at the last minute. The change in plan came as a meeting between U.S. and Belarusian diplomats was under way, the officials said.
Instead, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the diplomats had warned that such steps were possible as Washington continues to explore ways to retaliate for Belarus' expulsion of most of the U.S. Embassy staff in Minsk.
"We told them we would comply with the expulsion order and we warned them that there is a range of actions that we can take," Casey said. "We have to consider whether, after drawing down our staff, we can effectively operate there."
He would not elaborate on what measures might be taken.
But orders had been prepared to tell Belarus it had until May 16 to withdraw its six diplomats at its missions in Washington and New York, officials said. At the same time, Belarus was to have been told that the U.S. embassy in Minsk would shut down as early as Friday, they said.
Planning for the closure of the Minsk Embassy has been under way for some time and had reached the stage of securing a third country to serve as a "protecting power" to represent U.S. in Belarus, the officials said.