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World News

Russia must respect sovereignty of Belarus, says White House

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany takes questions from news reporters during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, US, August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia must respect the sovereignty of Belarus and the right of its people to elect their own leaders, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Monday.

McEnany also told reporters that the leaders of the former Soviet republic of Belarus should heed demands for democracy from large numbers of demonstrators who have taken to the streets over the past three weeks to protest what they consider a rigged national election.

“The massive number of Belarusians protesting peacefully makes clear that the government can no longer ignore the people’s call for democracy, and Russia must also respect Belarus’ sovereignty and the right of its people to elect their own leaders freely and fairly,” she said at a briefing.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun last week said a Russian military intervention in Belarus would be “most unwelcome,” but said Washington had no indication of any such plans. He also urged Minsk to accept mediation from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated in Minsk again on Sunday against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is accused by opponents and the West of rigging an Aug. 9 election to prolong his 26-year rule.

Lukashenko has shown no sign of bowing to the protests. The former Soviet collective farm boss has denied rigging the election but on Monday referred to Belarusian public life being governed by “a somewhat authoritarian system.”

Belarus is Russia’s closest ally among former Soviet states, and its territory is integral to Moscow’s European defense strategy. President Vladimir Putin has invited Lukashenko to Moscow, a sign of Kremlin support, and the two countries’ foreign ministers will hold talks on Wednesday in Moscow.

McEnany said U.S. officials were following developments in Belarus closely, and supported international efforts to look independently at reports of electoral irregularities, human rights abuses, and the government’s crackdown on peaceful protests.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Jeff Mason, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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