NATO denied claims it’s organizing a buildup of troops at Belarus’ border, as mass protests continue in Minsk against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s election victory two weeks ago.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, inspected military units in Grodno, near Belarus’ border with Poland, on Saturday and ordered security forces to be on “high alert.” He accused NATO of planning to divide Belarus and establish a new government in Minsk and said “foreign powers” were readying themselves in Poland and Lithuania.
“They are rocking the situation inside our country, trying to topple the authorities,” Lukashenko said, according to the BBC, adding that he directed his armed forces at the western border to use the “most stringent measures to protect the territorial integrity of our country.”
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“You see that they are already dragging an ‘alternative president’ here,” he continued, referring to his main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who recently fled to Lithuania, knowing previous political opponents in Belarus have been jailed for years. “Military support is evident — the movement of NATO troops to the borders.”
NATO dismissed the “baseless” claims, explaining that the alliance “poses no threat to Belarus or any other country and has no military buildup in the region.”
“Our posture is strictly defensive,” the statement said.
NATO AWACS aircraft will deploy to Krakow, Poland, from Aug. 21 to 28 to join a binational training event and provide exercises in air command and control for Polish and U.S. fighter aircraft.
The exercise is “mandated under NATO’s Assurance Measures, implemented in 2014 after Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea. These measures are in place to assure the Alliance’s eastern members of NATO’s commitment and solidarity, as well as to deter any possible aggression against NATO members.”
Lukashenko later spoke to a rally of several thousand supporters in Grodno, where he threatened to close factories that are still on strike as of Monday. Strikes have hit some of the country’s major companies, including vehicle and fertilizer manufacturers, a potential blow to the largely state-controlled economy that has been struggling for years.
Poland and Lithuania also both denied the claims made by Lukashenko, with the Polish president’s chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski, calling the “sad and surprising” accusation either country would violate Belarus’ territorial integrity simply “regime propaganda.”
“The regime is trying to divert attention from Belarus’ internal problems at any cost with totally baseless statements about imaginary external threats,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, a heavy police and Army presence was seen in Belarus’ capital city of Minsk as demonstrators began to gather once again in the streets Sunday. Protests unprecedented in Belarus for their size and duration broke out after the Aug. 9 presidential election, in which election officials say Lukashenko won a sixth term in a landslide. Protesters allege the officials’ results are fraudulent and are calling for Lukashenko to resign.
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In an enormous show of defiance, an estimated 200,000 protesters rallied Aug. 16 in the capital, Minsk. Thousands were arrested. Tsikhanouskaya has called for another massive show of opposition this Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.