Lukashenko warns of NATO troops near borders as Belarus opposition calls for Minsk rally

AFP
Minsk, Belarus Published: Aug 23, 2020, 11:45 AM(IST)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko with military personnel (file photo) Photograph:( Reuters )

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The 65-year-old, who said he won a sixth presidential term with 80 percent of the vote in the August 9 ballot, made the comments while inspecting military units in Grodno, near Belarus's border with Poland, according to the president's press service.

Belarus's authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday ordered his defence minister to take "stringent measures" to defend the country's territorial integrity after mass protests erupted against his claim to election victory.

The 65-year-old, who said he won a sixth presidential term with 80 percent of the vote in the August 9 ballot, made the comments while inspecting military units in Grodno, near Belarus's border with Poland, according to the president's press service.

Lukashenko denounced the recent mass protests, which he said were receiving support from Western countries, and ordered the army to defend western Belarus, which he described as "a pearl".

"It involves taking the most stringent measures to protect the territorial integrity of our country," Lukashenko said.

His visit comes ahead of large-scale military exercises planned in the Grodno region between August 28 and 31.

The former collective farm director said that NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania were "seriously stirring" near their borders with Belarus and ordered his troops into full combat readiness.

NATO said the claims were "baseless".

"As we have already made clear, NATO poses no threat to Belarus or any other country and has no military buildup in the region," it said in a statement.

Both countries also denied the accusation.

"The regime is trying to divert attention from Belarus's internal problems at any cost with totally baseless statements about imaginary external threats," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told AFP.

The Polish president's chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski, for his part dismissed the claim that Poland planned to violate Belarusian territorial integrity as "regime propaganda", calling it "sad and surprising".

"Poland... has no such intention," he told the Polish news agency PAP.

Mass protests

Lithuania's foreign ministry announced that US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun will visit Vilnius and Russia next week for talks on Belarus and the elections fallout.

He is notably planning to meet with Lukashenko's election challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, where she is now in exile, her representatives told AFP.

Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after the disputed ballot in which she claims victory, said Saturday "we are not afraid."

"I am so proud of Belarusians now because after 26 years of fear they are ready to defend their rights," she told AFP.

"I call them to continue, not to stop, because it's really important now to continue to be united in the struggle for the rights."

Opponents of Europe's longest serving leader have organised strikes and the largest demonstrations in the ex-Soviet country's recent history to protest his re-election and demand that he stand down.

The opposition has called for a major rally in Minsk on Sunday after more than 100,000 people flooded onto the streets of the capital and other cities in Belarus last weekend demanding Lukashenko's resignation.

The European Union this week rejected his re-election and vowed to levy sanctions against what it said was a substantial number of people responsible for rigging the vote and cracking down on protests.

The Belarusian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the opposition's Coordination Council, whose members are seeking new elections and a peaceful transition of power.

Lukashenko has rejected the idea of holding another ballot, dismissed calls to resign and accused the opposition of attempting to seize power.

On Friday he vowed to "solve the problem" of the protest movement.

Tikhanovskaya said this week that Belarusians would "never accept the current leadership again" after the crackdown on post-election protests.

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