Minsk             -         Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko discussed the protests shaking his country with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Saturday, Belarusian state news agency Belta reported.

“The presidents discussed the situation that is unfolding inside and around Belarus,” Belta reported, citing Lukashenko’s press service. Meanwhile, United States and Poland appealed for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to engage with civil society, as the strongman leader faces the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power in 1994.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to Warsaw, said he had been consulting with European partners since a disputed presidential election in Belarus on August 9.

“The common objective is to support the Belarusian people to achieve their own sovereignty, their own freedom, to build out what you’re seeing happen in these protests,” he said.

“We urge the leadership of Belarus to broaden the circle... to engage with civil society in a way that reflects the central understandings that the Belarusian people are demanding,” Pompeo said at a joint press conference with his Polish counterpart Jacek Czaputowicz.

EU and NATO members Poland and neighbouring Lithuania, which is giving refuge to Belarusian opposition challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, have taken a lead in European diplomacy on Belarus.

Tikhanovskaya on Friday announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to “help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities”.

“We call on Belarusian authorities to begin respecting fundamental human rights and engage in a dialogue with society,” Czaputowicz said on Saturday, reiterating Poland’s call for new free and fair elections to be held.

Poland and the US also signed a defence agreement that will allow an additional 1,000 US troops to be deployed to Poland on top of the 4,500 already there. The Pentagon has said the United States would send home some 6,400 military personnel from Germany and move nearly 5,600 more to other NATO countries.

Trump has a tense relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who declined his invitation for a Group of Seven summit in Washington in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, and he accuses Europe’s largest economy of unfair trading practices.

Several thousand people gathered in Minsk on Saturday after Belarus’s opposition called for more protests over President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election. A large crowd had formed near the Pushkinskaya metro station in the capital, an AFP journalist said, in honour of a protester who died there during this week’s police crackdown on demonstrators.

Demonstrators laid flowers at the site where Alexander Taraikovsky, 34, died on Monday during clashes between protesters and police a day after the election that Lukashenko claims to have won with 80 percent of the vote. Many chanted “Leave!” and some held pictures of protesters with severe bruises, after accounts emerged of detained demonstrators being beaten and tortured. Others carried signs reading “No to Violence” and “No More Torture”. More than 6,700 people were arrested in the crackdown and hundreds injured.

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including Taraikovsky who they say died when an explosive device went off in his hand during a protest, and another man who died in custody after being arrested in the southeastern city of Gomel.

Taraikovsky’s funeral was being held on Saturday and a “March for Freedom” is planned in central Minsk on Sunday, after main opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for a weekend of new demonstrations.