Russia, Belarus to rehearse repelling external attack in joint drills

FILE PHOTO: Belarusian and Russian national flags fly during "Day of multinational Russia" event in central Minsk, Belarus June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and Belarus will rehearse repelling an external attack when they hold joint military drills in Belarus next month, both sides said on Tuesday, at a time of acute tensions with the West over neighbouring Ukraine.

Russian military forces and hardware began arriving in ex-Soviet Belarus on Monday for the "Allied Resolve" drills to be held near Belarus's western border with NATO members Poland and Lithuania, and close to its southern flank with Ukraine.

The West has voiced fears of a possible invasion of Ukraine by tens of thousands of Russian troops gathered near its border. Russia has denied such plans.

"The goal of the exercise is to fine-tune the tasks of suppressing and repelling external aggression during a defensive operation, countering terrorism and protecting the interests of the Union State (Russia and Belarus)," the Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Russian Defence Minister Alexander Fomin as saying.

Fomin said 12 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, two units of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system and a Pantsir missile system would be deployed to Belarus for the drills.

The Belarusian Defence Ministry said that in the first phrase of the drills, which runs until Feb. 9, both sides will rehearse deploying troops, defending military facilities and assessing their troops' air defence capabilities.

In the second phase of the exercises, which will be from Feb. 10-20, Russian and Belarusian troops will go over "destroying illegal armed formations and the enemy's sabotage and reconnaissance groups," the ministry said.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, a pariah in the West since a post-election crackdown in 2020 and last year's migrant crisis with the European Union, said the drills were needed as Ukraine had built up troops near Belarus.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Catherine Evans and Timothy Heritage)

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