Belarus opposition leader Mikola Statkevich gestures as he leaves a bus in the capital Minsk on August 22, 2015 after being released from prison
Minsk (AFP) - Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko has released six opposition leaders, including a former presidential rival, less than two months before presidential elections in a move hailed Sunday by the European Union.
A pardon for the six was revealed in a brief statement on Saturday evening. Among the freed opponents was Mikola Statkevich, a former presidential candidate imprisoned since 2010, much of which he spent in solitary confinement.
The release was welcomed by European officials, who said it was a long-overdue step towards normalising ties after years of sanctions over Lukashenko's political crackdown.
Observers said political expediency propelled the move as well as the need for risk management as main ally Russia is sinking into recession.
On his release, a smiling Statkevich was given a hero's welcome with flowers and balloons by around 200 people in Minsk.
He and the five others were considered by international rights groups as the last political prisoners in the country.
"I will continue to do what I have always done: work for a free Belarus," Statkevich told the jubilant crowd as he embraced his wife and was even lifted into the air by supporters, some of whom shouted: "Mikola is our president!"
"I will not leave Belarus under any circumstances. I will fight for creating a normal country," he said.
"Together we will make this country normal and free."
The surprise move to pardon and release the six detainees in a decree that based the decision on "humane principles" comes as Lukashenko, in power since 1994, seeks reelection for a fifth term in an October 11 election.
Their release took place a day after registration closed for potential candidates.
"This 'humanism' is tightly connected with the desire to improve relations with the West after the polls," Minsk-based political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky said.
The move was hailed in Europe with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini calling it a "long-sought step forward" in a joint statement with EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn.
The releases "represent important progress in the efforts towards the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus," it said.
Germany also welcomed the move with a foreign ministry statement describing it as a "positive step" and saying that EU states would have to "consider how a greater rapprochement can take place" with Belarus.
- Europe's 'dictator' bankrupt? -
Once dubbed by Washington as "Europe's last dictator" for his authoritarian rule, Lukashenko now finds himself nursing chilled relations with former master Moscow over the Ukraine conflict while grappling with a shrinking economy that is dependent on Russia.
He recently made a return to the international scene, hosting Ukraine peace talks in Minsk between pro-Moscow rebels and the leaders of Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia.
The 60-year-old president was re-elected to a fourth term in December 2010 in a poll marred by a violent crackdown on the opposition which saw most opposition leaders jailed and resulted in EU sanctions.
Statkevich, now aged 58, was a rival candidate in that disputed election, and received a six year sentence in a sweeping probe into alleged mass riots following the polls.
The opposition has been all but wiped out as many key figures have left Belarus.
"Lukashenko clearly sees economic crisis and political madness in Russia now, so he wants to improve relations with the West and understands that dialogue is impossible without freeing political prisoners," Alexei Yanukevich, leader of BNF opposition party, told AFP.
He said that one could eventually expect at least a partial lifting of EU sanctions from Minsk.
In an interview to opposition website Charter 97, Statkevich said he was freed because "Lukashenko has run out of money" and will now seek loans from both Russia and the International Monetary Fund.
Statkevich had been recognised as a political prisoner by Amnesty International, and Western officials regularly pushed for his release.
Another freed prisoner, Mikola Rubsev, was arrested during the 2010 protests while wearing a T-shirt calling for Lukashenko to go. The remaining four were accused of belonging to an anarchist group that clashed with security officers.