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EU Drops Travel Bans On Gas-Rich Uzbekistan, Belarus

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) -- The European Union has agreed to end most remaining sanctions on gas-rich Uzbekistan after what it said was progress in human rights in the Central Asian state, as well as suspending travel bans on government officials in Belarus.

The 27-member bloc imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in 2005, including visa bans on top officials, in response to the killing of demonstrators in the town of Andijon that May.

"They've agreed to lift the travel bans," a spokeswoman for the European Commission said after EU foreign ministers agreed to allow the visa restrictions to expire next month. A separate arms embargo on Uzbekistan will remain in place, she said.

Germany has led an EU push to improve ties with Central Asian states as part of EU efforts to secure future energy supplies and diversify away from Russian gas and oil.

Belarus Sanctions Eased

The foreign ministers also agreed to suspend a travel ban on Belarus's President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other officials in recognition of the freeing of political prisoners in the ex-Soviet state.

But EU foreign ministers maintained asset freezes on top Belarusians and kept the chief election official on the travel ban list to show disappointment over the staging of a September election won overwhelmingly by Lukashenka allies.

"He is free to travel," said one EU envoy of a six-month suspension on visa restrictions for Lukashenka, whose government was branded "the last dictatorship in Europe" by the United States in 2005.

It was not immediately clear how many of the 41 officials currently covered by the restrictions would see their travel bans suspended.

However a second EU diplomat said travel bans would remain effective for officials accused of involvement in the "disappearances" of political prisoners and for Lidziya Yarmoshyna, head of the country's Central Election Commission.

The EU slapped sanctions on Belarus after Lukashenka was accused of rigging his 2006 reelection.

Relations with the ex-Soviet republic and Brussels have warmed since August, when Belarus freed the last three detainees considered political prisoners and declined to follow Russia in recognizing breakaway regions of Georgia as independent.

But the West was disappointed with the way Minsk staged an election won hands down by Lukashenka allies last month, and several EU states were reluctant to give Lukashenka a completely clean bill of health.

The French EU presidency invited Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau to talks in Luxembourg and proposed the bloc's sanctions against Minsk be cut back to isolate just six officials deemed to be involved in repression, diplomats said.