US troops drill in Lithuania as Belarus tensions mount

06 Sep 2020

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

VILNIUS/MINSK: Several hundred US troops started arriving in Nato member Lithuania on Saturday 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 part-ner Poland on Saturday afternoon, a photographer said.

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 Aug 9 vote that the opposition claims was rigged.

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.

Belarus’s Soviet-era master Russia, which has long courted Lukashenko as a buffer against the West, has promised him military support. It is not the first time the US sent a battalion of troops to Lithuania.

During a visit to Vilnius in July, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said the United States will continue deploying hundreds of troops for exercises in Lithuania.

Three years ago, Nato deployed permanent troop rotations to Poland and the Baltic states to guard against Russian adventurism on its eastern flank, a region formerly under Moscow’s control and spooked by its 2014 annexation of territory from Ukraine.

Masked security agents dragged students off the streets and bundled them into vans as new protests broke out against Bela­ru­sian President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday on the fourth weekend since his disputed re-election.

Up to 30 people were detained for taking part in unsanctioned protests, Russian news agency TASS quoted the Minsk police as saying.

Draped in red-and-white opposition flags, students staged protests in several places in the capital, including outside the Minsk State Linguis­tic Institute where police had arrested five people on Friday, local media footage showed.

Elsewhere masked men dragged away students who had gathered at an eatery in Karl Marx Street in the centre of Minsk, while some of the protesters shouted “tribunal!”, according to footage shown by news outlet TUT.BY.

Thousands of women later held a separate march through Minsk in the afternoon, shouting “hands off the children” as one of their slogans.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2020