Macron Meets Exiled Belarusian Opposition Leader, Vows To Help Mediate Political Crisis.

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Canada and the United Kingdom have announced sanctions on several senior officials in Belarus, including its authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, as international pressure continues to build over a disputed presidential election last month and subsequent police crackdown on opposition members, media, and protesters.
The two Commonwealth nations announced on September 29 joint sanctions including a travel ban and asset freeze “to send a clear message” to Lukashenka’s “violent and fraudulent regime." "We will hold those responsible for the thuggery deployed against the Belarusian people to account and we will stand up for our values of democracy and human rights," U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. Canada’s Foreign Ministry added in a statement: "Since the fraudulent presidential elections in August 2020, the government of Belarus has conducted a systematic campaign of repression and state-sponsored violence against public protests and the activities of opposition groups." Those sanctioned are Lukashenka, his son Viktar, Presidential Chief of Staff Ihar Syarheyenka, Interior Minister Yury Karayeu, Deputy Interior Ministers Alyaksandr Barsukou and Yury Nazaranka, Deputy Internal Troop Commander Khazalbek Atabekau, and Minsk Riot Police Chief Dzmitry Balaba. The sanctions announcement comes hours after French President Emmanuel Macron promised Europe's help in mediating the political crisis in Belarus after meeting with opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Lithuania.

Macron called for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to handle mediation on Belarus, which has seen weeks of mass demonstrations triggered by a disputed August 9 presidential election.

The opposition leader said the French president "promised us to do everything to help with negotiations [during] this political crisis in our country...and he will do everything to help to release all the political prisoners."

Tsikhanouskaya told AFP that she had accepted an invitation to speak at the French parliament, where officials said she would address the lower house's Foreign Affairs Committee. No further details were provided.

Meanwhile, her press secretary, Anna Krasulina, told Reuters the opposition leader planned to visit Berlin on October 5-6 and that a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel was being considered during the trip.

Macron is the highest-profile Western leader to visit Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania amid a crackdown on protesters by long-ruling strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka following the presidential election.

Lukashenka claims he won the vote, but the opposition has held mass rallies to protest the results, saying Tsikhanouskaya is the winner.

The Interior Ministry said more than 350 people were detained during nationwide protests on September 27, bringing the total number of detentions over the weekend to about 500.

Western governments have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have called on him to negotiate a transfer of power, which Lukashenka refuses to do.

He was secretly sworn in on September 23, sparking outrage at home and abroad.

Under increasing pressure from the street and the West, Lukashenka has leaned on neighboring Russia for political and economic support.

In a video message for the participants of the Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus on September 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Belarus was in a "difficult situation" and facing "unprecedented external pressure."

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, later downplayed Macron's meeting with Tsikhanouskaya, describing it as a meeting between the "French president and a Belarusian citizen."

Ahead of his three-day trip to Lithuania and neighboring Latvia, Macron said it was clear that Lukashenka "has to go" after 26 years in power.

Over the past year, Macron has tried to reduce distrust between Russia and the West. But the efforts have upset other EU governments, particularly those that escaped Moscow's orbit after the Cold War. They say little has changed to merit a thaw in relations.

Other European Union leaders have called on Macron to review his stance toward Moscow since the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, a longtime critic of Putin.

German doctors found traces of a nerve agent in Navalny's body and his allies accuse the Kremlin of being behind the poisoning.

Moscow denies the accusation but has resisted pressure to launch a criminal investigation.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, dpa, and TASS

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