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Belarus says Russian troops to stay in country indefinitely

Belarus said 30,000 Russian troops participating in joint drills would stay in the country indefinitely despite earlier pledges by Moscow they would return to base.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin on Sunday said Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko made the decision because of “increasing military activity on [the countries’] eastern borders and the worsening situation in the Donbas ”in eastern Ukraine.

The announcement came on the day the joint military exercises in Belarus were scheduled to end and will add to western fears that Russia is planning a renewed invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has massed as many as 190,000 troops on the Ukraine border, including the 30,000 troops participating in the drills in Belarus.

The conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the Donbas has escalated in recent days. The separatists have accused Ukrainian troops of breaching the ceasefire and ordered an evacuation of civilians, in a move Kyiv and its western allies say could be a prelude to a new Russian invasion. Kyiv has reported heavy shelling on its positions on the frontline.

French President Emmanuel Macron held a call with Putin on Sunday, in the latest western attempt to persuade the Russian leader to withdraw his forces from Ukraine’s borders and call off any invasion.

After a separate call by Macron to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday, a senior French official said: “What the president [Macron] is doing today is part of the last possible and necessary efforts to avoid a major conflict in Ukraine or around Ukraine. ”

More than 14,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine, in a slow-burning war that broke out after Moscow annexed Crimea from Kyiv in 2014.

Lukashenko is in Moscow, where he has watched massive nuclear deterrence drills alongside Putin. The nuclear tests could be a warning not to intervene to support Ukraine in the event of a conflict, the US and western allies say.

The extended military exercises are aimed at “ensuring adequate reaction and de-escalation of enemy military preparations near our shared borders”, Khrenin said, according to state newswire Belta.

Khrenin blamed the rising tensions on NATO support for Ukraine and recent deployments to neighboring countries, which he said threatened Russia and Belarus. “There is one conclusion – that it strongly smells of gunpowder in Europe,” he was quoted as saying.

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