Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is facing an opposition threat of a national strike, spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Saturday, state media reported.
Lukashenko told Pompeo about national dialogue in Belarus and Russia's position as a union partner, Russian Ifax news agency reported cited Belarusian television. Moscow does not meddle in Minsk's internal affairs but they are ready to face external threats together, Lukashenko told top U.S. diplomat according to remarks carried by TASS.
Pompeo told the president that the U.S. supports Belarusian sovereignty and would like to develop its cooperation with the country.
Lukashenko, who is holding on to power despite major protests in recent weeks calling for him to resign, is facing the prospect of a national strike that could begin on Monday following an ultimatum set by opposition leaders. He has shown no sign he will heed the ultimatum and step down.
Protests against his 26-year rule began following an Aug. 9 election victory his opponents say was rigged. Washington has imposed sanctions on Belarus officials following violent crackdowns at demonstrations in Minsk and across the country.
Several hundred women marched across Minsk in heavy rain Saturday to demand the resignation of Lukashenko, continuing more than 2 1/2 months of protests against his challenged reelection to a sixth term.
Footage taken by local media showed protesters shouting slogans, carried umbrellas in the white and red colors of the opposition flag and waving opposition flags.
They also held placards stating their professions to underline widespread opposition to Lukashenko's 26-year rule among people of various occupations, chanting "Go away!” as a demand for the president's resignation. Police arrested at least 10 march participants, according to the Viasna human rights center in Belarus. Smaller anti-government demonstrations were also held in several other cities.
Daily protests in Belarus have continued despite arrests and pressure, peaking on weekends with crowds of 100,000 and more. Another big protest is set for Sunday.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, has accused the United States and its allies of fomenting unrest in the ex-Soviet country.
The United States and the European Union have dismissed the August election as neither free nor fair and introduced sanctions against top Belarusian officials accused of vote manipulation and a crackdown on peaceful protesters.
Pompeo and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell discussed the situation in Belarus among other issues during a phone call on Friday.
The State Department said they agreed Belarusian authorities need to "engage in a meaningful dialogue with genuine representatives of civil society,” including Lukashenko's leading election opponent, opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
The EU and the United States also reiterated "their strong support for the independence and sovereignty of Belarus,” the State Department said.
The EU has warned it is ready to sanction Lukashenko himself if he fails to enter talks with the opposition. The Belarusian leader has ignored demands to negotiate and relied instead on political and economic support from Russia, his main ally and sponsor.
On Thursday, the EU awarded its top human rights prize to Tikhanovskaya, 38, and the Belarus opposition movement. A former English teacher with no previous political experience, Tikhanovskaya joined the presidential race after her husband was jailed in Belarus and prevented from running. He remains in prison.
Tikhanovskaya, who moved to Lithuania after the election under pressure from Belarusian authorities, put forward an ultimatum to Lukashenko: announce his resignation by Oct. 25 or face a nationwide strike.
Meanwhile, Tikhanovskaya and all three foreign ministers from Europe's Baltic states quarantined themselves Saturday after meeting with their Slovenian counterpart, who tested positive following a visit to the region this week.
Tikhanovskaya had "halted physical contacts" and would be undergoing a test, her press officer, Anna Krasulina, said in a Saturday statement.
"This is not hampering the work of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's team," said Krasulina.
"All meetings are now online and preparations are continuing for the People's Ultimatum on Sunday," she added, referring to Tikhanovskaya's call for a general strike.
Estonia's Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, Latvia's Edgars Rinkevics and Linas Linkevicius from Lithuania were all reported to be doing fine.
Slovenian Foreign Minister Anze Logar tested positive for coronavirus on Friday after returning from a three-day tour to the Baltic states, where he met with his three counterparts and Tikhanovskaya.
Poland's President Andrzej Duda said he tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday just days after he returned from a forum in Estonia's capital Tallinn. While it was unclear when Duda was infected, he met with Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev at the forum.
Kaljulaid said on her Facebook page she tested negative for the virus after returning home from France on Friday. Radev has meanwhile cut short his visit to Tallinn on Tuesday and will go into quarantine in Sofia.
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