MINSK -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has held a phone call with Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka as pressure mounts on the authoritarian ruler ahead of an opposition ultimatum to end his reign or face increased nationwide protests and strikes.
The State Department told RFE/RL on October 24 that Pompeo demanded the release of a Belarusian-American political strategist whose detention the U.S. government has called "unjust." "The secretary called for the full release and immediate departure from Belarus of wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov and reaffirmed U.S. support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus," a State Department spokesperson said. Shkliarov, who worked on the campaigns of former President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders, was detained in late July while visiting his family in Belarus. He was recently released and put under travel restrictions pending trial on what are widely considered to be trumped-up political charges.
Earlier on October 24, Belarusian state news agency BelTA provided a different account of the phone call between Lukashenka and Pompeo.
Lukashenka reportedly told Pompeo that a "national dialogue" was taking place in Belarus, an apparent reference to a constitutional amendment process that he has proposed as a way of placating the opposition after a disputed presidential election in August that handed him victory amid allegations the ballot was rigged. Both the United States and the European Union have refused to accept the results, or that Lukashenka is the rightful leader of the former Soviet republic. BelTA also reported Lukashenka said Belarus and its ally Russia were ready to respond jointly to external threats. "In general, the Belarusian leader emphasized that we are in favor of a peaceful and calm resolution of all conflicts, including those on the outer contour," BelTA quoted the Belarusian presidential press service as saying.
The Belarusian opposition says the results of the August 9 vote were fraudulent, and that activist Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in fact is the legitimate winner. She left Belarus for Lithuania shortly after the election amid threats to her and her family.
Minsk and Washington had seen a thawing of relations in recent years, culminating in visit by Pompeo to Belarus in February to help "normalize" ties.
But the crisis has prompted Washington to impose sanctions on Belarus because of the violent crackdowns at demonstrations over the election, while Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, has accused Washington and its allies of fomenting unrest in the ex-Soviet country.
Earlier on October 24, police detained nine protesters as hundreds of women staged their regular weekend march in the capital to pressure the government and Lukashenka to step aside or call new elections.
Some of the demonstrators were draped in red-and-white opposition flags and others were holding red-and-white umbrellas as they marched through central Minsk for several hours despite the rain.
More than 12,000 Belarusians have been detained and hundreds tortured during protests since the election, with at least nine more detained on October 24 as hundreds of women staged their regular weekend march in the capital, Minsk.
Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with Tsikhanouskaya, prompting the opposition to set an October 25 deadline for him to step aside and call new elections or face increased nationwide pressure from wider strikes and protests.
Lukashenka has mentioned the possibility of changes to the constitution several times, but the opposition has dismissed the move as an attempt to buy time and stay in power while cracking down on protesters.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen earlier on October 24 reiterated her country's support for the Belarusian opposition movement, the day after meeting with Tsikhanouskaya.
Democratic rights should never be taken for granted, since these "rights ensure we can take part in free elections and say what we think," Frederiksen said on Facebook.
"The popular uprising of recent weeks in Belarus is a scary reminder that there is still a lot of work to do -- also in Europe," she added.
Frederiksen noted that Denmark supported EU sanctions against Lukashenka.