Lukashenko gets birthday call from Putin as Belarus protests rumble

Russian President Vladimir Putin used a birthday phone call on Sunday Aug. 30 to invite Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to visit Moscow, a Kremlin show of support as thousands of protesters streamed into central Minsk demanding Lukashenko step down.

President Lukashenko, who turned 66 on Sunday, is struggling to contain three weeks of protests and strikes since winning an Aug. 9 election that his opponents say was rigged. He denies electoral fraud and has said the protests are backed from abroad.

Belarus is Russia’s closest ex-Soviet ally and its territory is an integral part of Moscow’s European defense strategy. Nevertheless, Lukashenko is seen in Moscow as a prickly ally.

Thousands of people, many waving red-and-white opposition flags and chanting “long live Belarus,” marched towards Minsk’s Independence Square, which was cordoned off by police in anticipation of the protest.

Passing cars honked their horns in solidarity with the protesters. Police detained at least a dozen people, an eyewitness said. Other protesters were seen resisting arrest by what appeared to be plain-clothes officers.

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