U.S. watching 'terrible' situation in Belarus closely, warns Russia not to meddle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States believes mass protests in Belarus make clear the government of longtime president Alexander Lukashenko “can no longer ignore” calls for democracy there, a senior Trump administration official said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., August 15, 2020. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Russia should stay out of the situation brewing in the Eastern European country, saying Moscow “must also respect Belarus’ sovereignty and the right of its people to freely and fairly elect their own leaders.”

Security forces have clashed with protesters in Minsk and other cities after Lukashenko claimed a landslide re-election victory in a vote that his opponents say was rigged.

Lukashenko said on Monday he would be ready to hold new elections and hand over power after a constitutional referendum in an attempt to pacify the protests and strikes that pose the biggest challenge yet to his 26-year rule.

U.S. President Donald Trump called it a “terrible situation” unfolding in Belarus.

The senior administration official said the United States was closely following developments in Belarus.

“The massive number of Belarusians peacefully protesting make clear that the government can no longer ignore their calls for democracy,” the official said.

“President Lukashenko’s remarks today reflect this realization, though power sharing still does not address the lack of free and fair elections.”

“Russia must also respect Belarus’ sovereignty and the right of its people to freely and fairly elect their own leaders,” the official said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday said the United States is discussing the situation in Belarus with the European Union after the disputed election and subsequent crackdown on protesters.

Speaking in Warsaw, his last stop on a tour of central Europe, Pompeo said Washington was tracking the situation in Belarus and that the aim of U.S. contacts with the EU was to “try to help as best we can the Belarusian people achieve sovereignty and freedom.”

The situation in Belarus, a strategically important country that carries Russian energy exports to the West, is fluid after the biggest demonstration yet against Lukashenko’s rule on Sunday.

Protesters say the president massively rigged the vote to ensure a phony landslide win. Opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the real winner, they say.

Reporting by Steve Holland and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Dan Grebler and Paul Simao