( dpa )- The United States with "great regret" will halve the number of staff its embassy in Minsk to comply with a request by the Belarussian government amid a widening rift between the two countries, the State Department said Monday.
Visa processing in the embassy as been temporarily suspended but staff will remain in place to handle needs of US citizens in the former Soviet state, spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"The United States will with great regret reduce the number of American staff at our embassy in Minsk by almost half, at the insistence of the Government of Belarus," McCormack said.
The move comes after the US ambassador to Belarus, Karen Stewart, left the country March 12 at the request of the Belarussian government angered by US criticism over human rights and sanctions on the Belneftekhim energy firm.
The United States has urged Minsk to free political dissidents jailed for their opposition to President Aleksander Lukashenko , who has been the focus of US and EU criticism for holding fraudulent elections and arresting opposition leaders.
"The unfortunate actions by the Belarus authorities demonstrate that Belarus has taken a path of confrontation and isolation rather than a path of engagement and democratic reform," McCormack said.
"We would like a different relationship with Belarus, but that can only happen when the Government of Belarus shows commitment to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms," he added.