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EU backs Sweden, ducks Belarus diplomatic crisis

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EU backs Sweden, ducks Belarus diplomatic crisis
07:15 CEST+02:00
The EU shied away from a full-blown diplomatic crisis Friday at talks called to respond to the expulsion by Belarus of Swedish diplomats in a row over human rights in the former Soviet republic.

A senior official chairing the talks -- who happens to be Swedish -- said a "very clear message" would be sent to Minsk in the next few days but that the possibility of pulling out all EU ambassadors was not discussed.

The row erupted after Swedish activists illegally flew a plane into Belarus from Lithuania last month, dropping hundreds of teddy bears attached to little parachutes carrying signs calling for freedom of speech and human rights.

Friday's emergency talks involving representatives of all 27 EU members were called after Belarus -- ruled by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko -- this week expelled all Swedish diplomats and closed its Stockholm mission.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had said ambassador Stefan Eriksson, who had taken up the post in Minsk in 2008, was being expelled because of his pro-rights stance and meetings he had with the Belarus opposition.

Stockholm immediately retaliated by saying it would not welcome a new ambassador named by Minsk, and withdrew residency permits for another two Belarus diplomats.

European ambassadors to Belarus had been previously recalled in February after Minsk responded to new EU sanctions by suggesting that envoys from Poland and the European Commission leave the largely isolated country.

A similar move had been widely mooted over the latest dispute, but EU Political and Security Committee chairman Olof Skoog said "this has not been discussed".

"There is going to be a very clear message to all Belarussian ambassadors around Europe in the next few days," he said.

Skoog said sanctions on Belarus would be discussed again in October, and that "the decision against the Swedish ambassy will of course also have an effect on how we discuss our relations with Belarus.

"We will be reviewing sanctions, restrictive measures with Belarus," he said.

"Everyone around the table was absolutely clear about the facts that this is not a situation merely between Sweden and Belarus."

Bildt said on Twitter that Friday's meeting expressed "grave concern" over the actions of Belarus and "will impact also (the upcoming) sanctions decision".

A diplomatic source said the response was incomplete, because the talks, held at the height of summer, were attended by lower level officials who would need to refer back to their capitals.

Brussels has already imposed a raft of sanctions against Belarus over its jailing of citizens for political reasons.

In January 2011, the European Union reinstated a travel ban against Lukashenko -- dubbed the last dictator in Europe -- after the government launched an opposition crackdown in the wake of disputed elections.

The ban on EU entry currently extends to almost 250 people in the government and court system. Dozens of Belarussian companies also face sanctions on doing business with Europe.

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