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U.S. slaps sanctions on eight Belarus officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on the interior minister of Belarus and seven other officials of the former Soviet republic, taking action after an August election that the West says was rigged.

The U.S. move followed similar measures by the European Union, Britain and Canada against those accused of fraud and human rights abuses after the election, which the opposition says was stolen by President Alexander Lukashenko.

Interior Minister Yuri Karaev and his deputy were the highest-ranking officials targeted by the United States and were accused, along with security force commanders, of leading a violent crackdown on protesters following the Aug. 9 vote. Two senior elections officials were also hit with sanctions.

“The United States and our international partners stand united in imposing costs on those who have undermined Belarusian democracy for years,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Lukashenko, who was declared a landslide winner and has been in power for 26 years, has denied electoral fraud and was spared in the latest U.S. sanctions.

More than 12,000 people have been arrested in mass protests since the poll and all major opposition figures are either in jail or in exile.

The U.S. Treasury accused Karaev and Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Barsukov of directing “a law enforcement system that has abused the human rights of Belarusians on streets and in prison cells” at the behest of Lukashenko, which it described as the “Belarusian dictator.”

The United States had originally been expected to impose sanctions in concert with Britain and Canada, which went ahead on Tuesday with travel bans and asset freezes on Lukashenko, his son Viktor and other senior officials.

Washington, which has had sanctions on Lukashenko and his son since 2006, held off while waiting to see if the EU would settle an internal dispute, paving the way to coordinated U.S. and EU sanctions, four sources told Reuters.

EU leaders broke the impasse following a summit dinner in the early hours of Friday in Brussels and imposed sanctions on about 40 individuals. The U.S. Treasury Department’s announcement came hours later, with Washington matching some on the EU’s list.

Responding to the EU action, Lukashenko’s government said it had drawn up a list of people banned from entering Belarus in retaliation against the EU.

Those under U.S. sanctions are subject to asset freezes and a prohibition against Americans doing business with them.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Gregorio and Dan Grebler