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Belarus opposition activist freed

MINSK, Belarus — A prominent Belarusian opposition activist was released Sunday in a move that followed crippling sanctions introduced by the West in response to a crackdown on dissent by the country's authoritarian president

Dmitry Bondarenko's wife Olga said he had phoned her in the morning and said he had been set free. Bondarenko had helped run the election campaign of former opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who was freed over the weekend.

Both men were arrested along with about 700 others in December 2010 after police broke up a massive protest rally hours after voting ended in a presidential election that saw incumbent strongman Alexander Lukashenko win a new term. The demonstrators had been protesting alleged vote fraud. Western countries and monitors have called the vote deeply flawed.

Sannikov was sentenced to five years in prison and Bondarenko received a two-year sentence on charges of staging mass riots.

Their release followed a series of new sanctions introduced by the European Union and the United States, which have strongly urged Lukashenko to end repression of the opposition and free political prisoners. The EU has recently recalled its ambassadors from Belarus and placed an asset freeze and visa sanctions on Belarusian officials.

Lukashenko — dubbed Europe's last dictator by critics — has been in office since 1994, relentlessly stifling dissent and independent media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands.

Some observers believe that by releasing opposition activists, he is seeking to mend ties with the West in order to build more room to maneuver in relations with his main sponsor and ally, Russia. Lukashenko depends on Moscow for subsidies, but has accused the Kremlin in the past of angling to erode the 10-million nation's sovereignty and grab its economic assets.

"Lukashenko is sending a clear signal to the West about his desire to improve ties," said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. "Minsk is shifting back to the past policy of bargaining and balancing between the West and the Kremlin."

Belarusian rights activists say 10 opposition activists, including ex-presidential candidate, Nikolai Statkevich, are still in prison on political charges.