Belarus and Russia will respond to external threats, Lukashenko tells Pompeo - agencies

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Belarusian President Lukashenko chairs a meeting in Minsk

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call on Saturday that Belarus and Russia were ready to respond jointly to external threats, Russian agencies quoted Belarus state media as saying.

Lukashenko, who is holding on to power despite major protests in recent weeks calling for him to resign, is facing the prospect of a national strike that could begin on Monday following an ultimatum set by opposition leaders.

Lukashenko has shown no sign he will heed the ultimatum and step down. Protests against his 26-year rule began following an Aug. 9 election victory his opponents say was rigged.

Lukashenko had sought to mend fences with the West in recent years and Pompeo had travelled to Belarus in February in a bid to "normalise" ties. But the crisis after the disputed election pushed Lukashenko back closer to traditional ally Russia.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson confirmed Pompeo's call on Saturday. "The Secretary called for the full release and immediate departure from Belarus of wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov and reaffirmed U.S. support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Washington has imposed sanctions on Belarus officials following violent crackdowns at demonstrations in Minsk and across the country.

Protesters shouting slogans and waving red-and-white opposition flags marched through the streets of Minsk on Saturday, footage taken by local media showed.

"Russia does not interfere in the internal affairs of Belarus. At the same time, the countries are ready to jointly respond to emerging external threats," Russia's Interfax news agency cited Belarus state television as saying, describing the call.

"By mutual opinion, after Pompeo's February visit to Minsk, the situation has changed dramatically, new challenges have arisen and are emerging," Interfax cited Belarusian state television as saying.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington; Writing by Polina Ivanova and Matthias Williams; Editing by Alison Williams and Daniel Wallis)

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