Lukashenko Hopes for Better Relations With U.S.

MINSK -- Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said Friday that he hoped ties with the United States, beset by a dispute over sanctions and human rights, could soon be improved.

Lukashenko was speaking to Vietnamese media ahead of a visit in the next few days.

"I believe relations with the United States will soon be normalized, and chances are good for normalized relations with the European Union," he said, the BELTA news agency reported.

Belarus asked Washington earlier in the week for a new staffing cut of more than 50 percent at its Minsk embassy, following the departure of its ambassador at the urging of the authorities. The embassy is to provide an answer by Monday.

The embassy said staff reductions had obliged it for a second time to suspend the issuing of visas for Belarussians.

"As you are aware, only last week, our embassy reduced the number of American staff by half," it said in a statement. "We consider these demands by the Belarussian government to be unwarranted and unjustified."

The U.S. ambassador left Belarus last month, and the reduction is the second demanded by Minsk, which wants sanctions against Belarus dropped -- mainly measures against national oil products firm Belneftekhim.

Washington last year froze the U.S. accounts of Belneftekhim, which earns about one-third of foreign currency revenues in Belarus, and barred Americans from dealings with it.

It says a resumption of dialogue depends largely on Belarus releasing its most prominent detainee, Alexander Kozulin, who ran against Lukashenko in a 2006 election and helped stage protests against his landslide victory.

In his comments, Lukashenko predicted that U.S. measures to put pressure on his country would fail. "They are trying to corner us with sanctions. The Americans have tried to pressure us," he said. "These attempts are all in vain. We will find markets for our goods."