U.S. Said to Be Hurting Ordinary Belarussians

MINSK -- Belarus accused the United States on Friday of harming the interests of ordinary citizens by imposing new sanctions on the country's industry in a dispute over human rights.

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed punitive measures on Thursday on three Belarussian companies linked to state-run oil refiner Belneftekhim as part of efforts to intensify pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko over purported rights abuses.

Belarus has been subject to various sanctions for several years but is especially aggrieved at moves against Belneftekhim.

The U.S. ambassador left Minsk last month at the urging of officials and 10 diplomats were expelled.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov, in a statement on the ministry's web site, said: "Through its actions, the United States has shown beyond all doubt that its measures are aimed at ordinary Belarussian citizens and hit the interests of plants included on the list."

Popov said the step was all the more striking after Lukashenko's "unambiguous" call this week for "a dialogue of equals and of mutual respect" with Washington.

"The situation clearly shows just who is working in positive terms and who in negative terms," the statement said.

The U.S. Treasury banned Americans from doing business with the companies identified as enterprises of Belneftekhim.

It also sought to freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction held by the firms -- Lidskaya Lakokraska, a paint and varnish producer, Polotsk Steklovolokno, a glass and fiber plant, and Belarussian Oil Trade House, a clearing house for transactions.

The sanctions seek to prevent Belneftekhim from using other corporate entities to skirt the U.S.-imposed sanctions.

Lukashenko earlier in the week accused U.S. diplomats of applying pressure on Belarus and working to worsen relations.

"If the Americans think they can build relations from a position of strength, then we don't need such diplomats or relations," he said in an interview.

"If the United States wants to see us as an independent state and build relations on that basis ... the country is open to them," he said.

The head of Belarus' central bank, Pyotr Prokopovich, said the sanctions could persuade potential investors to reconsider their plans.

The United States and European Union accuse Lukashenko of crushing fundamental rights by shutting down media outlets, holding political prisoners and rigging elections.

Since 2006, Washington has barred entry to Lukashenko and other senior officials and blocked their personal assets.

It added Belneftekhim, which has more than 50 separate petroleum and petrochemical businesses, to the blacklist in November.

n Belarussian police quickly dispersed about 50 opposition activists who attempted to hold a rally Friday on Minsk's central square to urge the release of political prisoners, The Associated Press reported.