TALLINN, Estonia — The United States and the European Union have welcomed Belarus' release of some political prisoners, freed since the country’s authoritarian president this week promised to release seriously ill prisoners and those swept up during the 2020 mass protests against his rule.

The number of those freed reached at last 16 on Friday, according to a rights group.

Among those freed was prominent opposition figure Ryhor Kastusiou, who is ill with cancer. He ran against President Alexander Lukashenko in 2010.

Lukashenko has suppressed opposition and independent media since coming to power in 1994. Disputed results from the 2020 presidential election gave him a sixth term and set off protests that were the largest and most persistent in the country’s history.

Authorities responded severely, arresting some 35,000 people; many prominent opposition figures were imprisoned while others fled the country.

The human rights organization Viasna said Friday that more than 1,400 remain behind bars.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Smith and the European Union foreign affairs spokeswoman Nabila Massrali welcomes the developments and urged for the release of remaining political prisoners.

“We welcome the news that some of Belarus’ most vulnerable political prisoners have been freed,” Smith said Thursday.

“We are relieved by the news that they finally reunited with their families and loved ones,” Massrali said. “The EU urges the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.”

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