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Biden backs embattled democracy movement in Belarus

FILE - In this July 27, 2021, file photo Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya poses for a photo in New York. Tsikhanouskaya, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's main election challenger, who was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure after the election, met with President Joe Biden on Wednesday, July 28. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden spoke out for embattled pro-democracy forces in Belarus on Wednesday in a White House meeting with that country’s main opposition leader.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave Belarus after unsuccessfully challenging President Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 elections that the opposition and the West say were rigged, has been touring Washington this month, seeking concrete U.S. backing for her country’s opposition.

Biden tweeted that the meeting was an honor. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus in their quest for democracy and universal human rights,” he wrote.

The authoritarian Lukashenko has faced down months of protests triggered by his election to a sixth term in August 2020. An extensive crackdown since then has seen more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

The Biden administration announced in May it was imposing sanctions on Lukashenko’s government after it forced down a Ryanair passenger jet to capture and detain a Belarus journalist traveling aboard. Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn closer to Lukashenko as Western condemnation of the Belarus leader’s actions increases.

In a statement, Tsikhanouskaya said she had urged U.S. officials to support negotiations aimed at new national elections under international monitoring, and to provide emergency funding for Belarus’ civil society and news media.

“I asked President Biden to stand with Belarus and support our democratic movement with concrete actions,” she said.

Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City.

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