Pompeo says U.S. supports international probe of Belarus election

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States backs independent international examinations of “electoral irregularities” in Belarus’ presidential election, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday, while implicitly warning Russia against intervening in the crisis.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a joint news conference with Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in Vienna, Austria, August 14, 2020. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/Pool

Pompeo’s statement was the strongest by the United States since Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s security forces began beating and detaining peaceful demonstrators who took to the streets in the tens of thousands, alleging he rigged the Aug. 9 vote.

Lukashenko appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help to secure his 26-year rule. Russia, with which Belarus has collective security and union state treaties, has urged foreign powers against involvement in the crisis, which it says should be solved internally.

Pompeo, who held talks in February in the capital of Minsk with Lukashenko on normalizing U.S.-Belarusian relations, implicitly warned Russia - without naming it - against intervening in Belarus’ biggest crisis since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

“We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the aspiration of the Belarusian people to choose their leader and to choose their own path, free from external intervention,” he said. He did not elaborate on how Washington would respond.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he was willing to discuss the crisis with Putin “at the appropriate time.”

Pompeo last week said the United States may consider sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in the crackdown, a step the European Union took on Wednesday.

The opposition claims its candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, won the election. She fled to neighboring Lithuania after the protest crackdown began.

She and other opposition figures formed a coordination council to negotiate a transfer of power, but the government launched a criminal case on Thursday against the group, accusing it of an illegal attempt to seize power.

Condemning the violence against protesters and calling for the immediate release “of those unjustly detained,” Pompeo said Washington supports international efforts to “investigate electoral irregularities, the human rights abuses surrounding the election, and the subsequent clampdown on protests.

“The United States supports free and fair elections that reflect the will of the Belarusian people as a matter of principle. The August 9 elections did not meet that standard,” he said.

Pompeo called on Minsk to accept an offer by the 57-nation Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which promotes political dialogue and security, to facilitate talks with the opposition.

Reporting by Jonathan Landay, Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Mary Milliken