The suspension will be re-examined in six months to see if there has been any movement towards democracy in the country.

The assets freeze will remain in place, a spokeswoman for the EU presidency said.

Political leverage

Earlier on Monday, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner, had told Serge Martynov, the Belarus foreign minister, that democratic developments there must be encouraged.

"We should now not delay our response any longer as I think I fear that we otherwise forego a possibility to have political leverage," she told reporters after the talks.

"In order to encourage further democratic development in Belarus, I would be in favour of a suspension of the most important part of the travel ban, because we want to show that progress is being rewarded and we want to have this more pragmatic concrete approach."

Supporters of Lukashenko, who has been dubbed Europe's last dictator, won every seat in parliamentary polls in September which were also widely criticised by the US government and Western observers.

However, a number of European Union nations, including Belarus's neighbours Poland and Lithuania have been pushing for some time for the sanctions on the former Soviet state to be eased.

Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, compared the situation to Cuba, where the EU has lifted its sanctions there despite the fact that Havana is still holding political prisoners.