Belarus has revoked its consent to the appointment of Julie Fisher as U.S. ambassador and ordered a reduction of staff at the American Embassy in Minsk, the Eastern European country's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.
The measures were announced two days after President Joe Biden's administration, in a coordinated move with the U.K. and Canada, announced fresh sanctions against several Belarusian individuals and entities with the aim of punishing hard-line president Alexander Lukashenko.
Describing it as "our reaction to their unfriendly and even aggressive actions," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anatol Glaz said Minsk had informed the United States it wanted embassy staff reduced to five people by Sept. 1. His comments were posted on the ministry's website.
Minsk had "lost trust in the current U.S. administration," he said, adding that his government would be suspending "cooperation in all new projects, grants and programs coordinated by the U.S. government until such trust is back."
Sworn in as the U.S. ambassador to Minsk in December, Fisher has not yet been able to enter Belarus, which initially dragged its feet on issuing her a visa.
"Against the background of Washington's actions to reduce cooperation in all spheres and the economic strangling of our country, we objectively do not see a reason for the American diplomatic mission to keep high staff numbers in Belarus," Glaz said.
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The ministry also reiterated Lukashenko's recent statement that the country was ready for talks with the West instead of a sanctions war.
Responding to the demands, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Wednesday that Belarusian authorities were responsible for the deterioration of relations between the two countries "through relentless repression against their citizens."
Members of civil society, the media, athletes, legal professionals and other citizens had all been targeted, he said.
He added that American diplomats would "continue to engage with delegations, including leaders of the pro-democracy movement."
Biden announced fresh sanctions against Belarus on Monday, as the country marked the one-year anniversary of Lukashenko's election victory. Opponents have claimed it was rigged to prolong his now 27 years in power. He has said he won the vote fairly and that others were calling for a coup.
The White House said in a statement that the sanctions were being levied in response to the Lukashenko regime's "ongoing assault against the democratic aspirations and human rights of the Belarusian people," as well as for "transnational repression and abuse, affronts to international norms, and corruption."
Belarus must allow a "legitimate international investigation" into May's Ryanair flight diversion, in addition to releasing all political prisoners and bringing an end to the targeting of activists and dissidents, it said.
It also accused Belarus of "threatening the safety of an Olympic athlete outside its borders" in an apparent reference to Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who fled to Poland after her coaches tried to force her to return home from the Tokyo Olympics after she criticized them in public.
It also called on Lukashenko's regime to "initiate a genuine and comprehensive political dialogue with democratic opposition and civil society figures that results in a free and fair presidential election."
Chantal Da Silva reported from London and Abigail Williams from Washington D.C.