Belarus on Wednesday strongly criticized the EU's coordinated move to recall its envoys from the ex-Soviet nation, saying it is a "path into deadlock."
The EU has opted for an "escalation of tensions," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, warning the bloc that what it called scare tactics won't work.
The EU announced the withdrawal late Tuesday, hours after Belarus asked the head of the EU's delegation in Minsk and the Polish ambassador to leave and said it was withdrawing its own from Brussels and Warsaw. The tit-for-tat followed EU sanctions passed Monday on Belarus over repression of the political opposition.
There are 14 EU countries with diplomatic representation in Belarus, plus one envoy for the bloc as a whole.
Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media. The widening rift will push Lukashenko even closer to his main ally and sponsor Russia, even though the Belarusian leader has accused Moscow of angling to erode his country's sovereignty and grab assets.
"The action by Minsk to burn bridges to the West will play into Moscow's hand," said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst.
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is all but certain to reclaim the presidency in his country's presidential election Sunday, was quick to voice support for Belarus, calling the EU sanctions deplorable.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague maintained a tough stance on Wednesday.
"The U.K., together with its EU partners, has consistently made clear to Belarus that the EU would continue to impose further sanctions as long as political prisoners remained in place and the repression of civil society continued," Hague said in a statement.
Repression of the opposition in Belarus has intensified after December 2010 presidential election, in which Lukashenko won another term. The fraud-tainted vote was criticized by international observers and sparked massive anti-government protests that were brutally dispersed by police, who arrested about 700 people. Some are still in jail, including two presidential candidates.
Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the opposition United Civil Party, said that Lukashenko challenged the EU as he moves to further strengthen his grip on the 10-million nation. "Lukashenko is tightening the screws ahead of the parliamentary elections set for the fall, depriving the EU of any means to influence the situation in Belarus," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement Tuesday that the U.S. "stands with our partners and joins them in calling on Belarus to end its repression of civil society and the democratic opposition."
Belarus expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 _ the embassy is now led by an interim charge d'affaires.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, David Stringer in London and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.