Tensions between authoritarian Belarus and the West soared Tuesday as the European Union announced it was recalling all its ambassadors to the former Soviet republic in response to Belarus asking the EU and Polish ambassadors to leave.
The tit-for-tat moves follow the latest EU sanctions on Belarus. The withdrawals of the diplomats will further isolate Belarus from Europe, with which it has been feuding over human rights issues, and push Belarus even closer to Russia, with which it has an awkward alliance.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton made the announcement of the bloc-wide withdrawal late Tuesday, hours after the Belarusian foreign ministry said the EU and Polish ambassadors should leave. Belarus also said it was withdrawing its ambassadors to Poland and the EU.
Ashton said the envoys were being "withdrawn for consultations to their capitals" in "an expression of solidarity and unity." In additon, all EU member states will summon Belarusian ambassadors to their foreign ministries.
There was no immediate comment from Belarus on Ashton's announcement.
The moves came one day after the EU Council voted to add 21 names to a list of some 200 Belarusian officials prevented from traveling to EU countries because of human rights violations. The officials also face an assets freeze.
The EU sanctions target the authoritarian country's repression of political opposition, including frequent jailings.
They date back to the December 2010 presidential elections, in which more than 700 people _ including seven candidates _ were arrested in the wake of a massive protest against alleged vote fraud. Strongman President Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, decried Belarus' move on Tuesday, saying: "I consider it a hostile act."
"It is intolerable for us as Europeans to see human rights and citizens' rights in Belarus thus violated. This is the last dictatorship in Europe," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media. Despite his support from Russia, Lukashenko has accused Moscow of angling to grab Belarusian economic assets and erode his country's sovereignty.
His predecessor, Stanislav Shushkevich, said Tuesday's moves appeared to signal a step-up in repression.
"Lukashenko needs confrontation with the EU in order to be unhindered in putting more political prisoners in jail," he told The Associated Press.
Lukashenko is the focus of increasing dissent at home amid an economic crisis that has gripped the country for most of the past year, in which the ruble's value has fallen by more than a third. As the crisis deepened, Belarus sold full control of country's natural gas pipeline network to Russia's state gas monopoly.
Belarus has previously expelled diplomats and used other pressure tactics to punish foreign powers for what it claims are attempts to interfere with its sovereignty.
Belarus expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 _ the embassy is now led by an interim charge d'affaires. Soon after the disputed presidential election it ordered the closure of the local office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the group whose observers were critical of the election.
In the run-up to the 2010 election, the 27-member EU had raised hopes of an easing of repression by offering Belarus substantial economic aid if it held a free and fair election.
Although campaigning by opposition candidates was unusually unhindered, the vote count, in which Lukashenko was said to have received nearly 80 percent, was widely regarded as fraudulent. The ensuing crackdown on the opposition, including violent police dispersal of a massive rally, effectively ended hopes for near-term improvement in relations with the West.
Jim Heintz in Moscow, David Rising in Berlin and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this story.