WASHINGTON — The United States expressed disappointment Friday over the suspension of plans to eliminate highly enriched uranium from Belarus amid an escalation of a human rights row.
The former Soviet republic announced earlier it would withdraw from the agreement reached with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year, citing a new round of sanctions from Washington on four state companies.
"We are disappointed with Belarus's announcement," State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told AFP.
"We hope that Belarus intends to meet its stated objective of the elimination of all of its stocks of highly enriched uranium. This is a responsible contribution to global security."
The Belarussian foreign ministry blasted the US sanctions imposed last week as "politically motivated," saying they forced it to freeze joint projects with the United States on highly enriched uranium exchanges.
Toner said the US offer to help eliminate highly enriched uranium in Belarus nonetheless "remains on the table."
"The goal of securing nuclear materials remains important to the security of the American people and the people of the region," he continued.
The nuclear agreement freeze in effect represented the most serious response Belarus could have taken against a country with which it has almost no formal trade ties.
December's deal had come as a coup for Clinton and offered the first signs of a thaw between two nations that have had strained relations for most of the past two decades.
But it was followed weeks later by a controversial presidential election in which veteran Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko secured victory in a poll that led to mass street protests and arrests.
The subsequent human rights crackdown broke a cautious rapprochement in Minsk's relations with the European Union and prompted Washington to impose several rounds of economic and other penalties against Lukashenko's team.
"Respect for democracy and human rights remains central to improving relations with Belarus," Toner said.
"The continuing crackdown and incarceration of political prisoners led the United States to impose additional sanctions this month. Our policy remains a firm call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners."
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