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Members of the US Army 2nd Brigade 69th Regiment 2nd Battalion are pictured at Mockava railway station in Lithuania. Photo: AFP

Hundreds of US troops arrive in Lithuania as Belarus tensions mount

  • Soldiers were due to take part in series of military exercises near the border with Belarus
  • Lithuanian official says the deployment is ‘not associated with any events in the region’

Several hundred US troops started arriving in Nato member Lithuania for military exercises near the border with Belarus, where tensions are mounting over its disputed presidential election.

More than a dozen Abrams tanks crossed the Lithuanian border from neighbouring Nato partner Poland on Saturday afternoon.

The deployment, to last until November, is “pre-planned and not associated with any events in the region”, a Lithuanian defence ministry statement said.

Lithuania took the lead in European diplomacy on Belarus after veteran strongman Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected in an August 9 vote that the opposition claims was rigged.

US Army Abrams tanks of the 2nd Brigade 69th Regiment 2nd Battalion are pictured at Mockava railway station in Lithuania. Photo: AFP

Vilnius has given refuge to opposition challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in the ballot, and has blacklisted Lukashenko along with Baltic neighbours Estonia and Latvia.

Maintaining that he won the ballot fairly, Lukashenko has cracked down on an unprecedented wave of mass protests demanding his ouster.

He has also accused the Nato defence alliance of building up forces in Poland and Lithuania along Belarus’s western border.

Warsaw, Vilnius and the Western defence alliance have dubbed these allegations baseless.

Who can replace Lukashenko in Belarus?

Belarus’s Soviet-era master Russia, which has long courted Lukashenko as a buffer against the West, has promised him military support.

Preparations for the military exercises came as thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and other cities in a further challenge to the rule of Lukashenko.

The crowds of female demonstrators, who had responded to an opposition call for a “women’s march”, included many holding up the white-red-white flag of the opposition and others carrying flowers.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that unless Lukashenko responded to the European Union’s concerns, more sanctions could follow those already agreed by the bloc.

Lukashenko needed to talk to the opposition and agree to rerun the election, Maas told the Bild newspaper.

The crackdown on protests in Belarus appeared to show no sign of letting up however.

Charges are expected against protesters who were arrested on Friday, the country’s Interior Ministry said.

About 40 demonstrators were detained, but only about half of them will face charges, the ministry said.

It was also revealed that prominent opposition politician Olga Kovalkova had also left Belarus, for neighbouring Poland.

She told internet news site that she had been pressured into leaving by authorities and that she wants to return to Minsk soon.

The 36-year-old Kovalkova, a confidante of Tikhanovskaya’s, was arrested in August and spent several days in detention before being released on Thursday.

Additional reporting by DPA

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: U.S. prepares for drills near Belarus border