Biden vows to back Belarus opposition in removing Lukashenko

Teachers and students of Belarusian State University take part in a nationwide strike in Minsk

US presidential hopeful Joe Biden voiced support Tuesday for the Belarus opposition in its general strike against President Alexander Lukashenko, saying the strongman was illegitimate.

Biden, who leads President Donald Trump in polls ahead of next week's election, promised if he wins to "significantly expand" sanctions alongside European allies against "Lukashenko's henchmen."

"Although President Trump refuses to speak out on their behalf, I continue to stand with the people of Belarus and support their democratic aspirations," Biden said in a statement.

"I also condemn the appalling human rights abuses committed by the Lukashenko regime," Biden said.

"No leader who tortures his own people can ever claim legitimacy."

Workers at factories on Monday started a strike after a deadline for Lukashenko to resign set by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who contested him in August elections.

Tikhanovskaya claims to have won the election but Lukashenko insists he was the victor and has deployed deadly force against nationwide protests.

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in August visited Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, where she has fled, and the United States and European Union have joined in sanctions against Lukashenko associates.

On Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Lukashenko to seek the release of a US citizen and voice support for "the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus," according to the State Department.

But Trump has also sparked controversy by praising autocratic leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko's primary international ally.