11 U.S. Diplomats Leave Minsk in Feud

MINSK -- Eleven U.S. diplomats have left Belarus after being declared personae non grata amid escalating diplomatic tensions between Washington and the ex-Soviet nation, embassy officials said.

Belarus on Wednesday had ordered 10 of the embassy's 11 diplomats to leave the country, giving them 72 hours to comply.

All 11 left Saturday, an embassy official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The departures leave the embassy with just four U.S. staffers, down from 35 at the start of the year. The U.S. ambassador left in March after Belarus pulled its ambassador from Washington.

The U.S. State Department has warned Belarus it may order the Belarussian embassy in Washington and the country's consulate in New York closed, and shut down the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.

Washington is one of the fiercest critics of Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, and is pressuring Belarus to release political prisoners or face punitive sanctions.

Relations have worsened in recent months, mainly because of U.S. sanctions imposed on a state-controlled oil-processing and chemicals company, Belneftekhim, as well as travel restrictions on Lukashenko and top government officials.

The sanctions are designed to punish Lukashenko, whom U.S. officials routinely describe as "Europe's last dictator," and his government for its heavy-handed treatment of critics.