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NATO denies Belarus claim of military buildup, but watching situation

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO dismissed on Sunday allegations by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that it was conducting a military buildup near the country’s western border but said it was closely monitoring the situation following his contested re-election.

FILE PHOTO: Banners displaying the NATO logo are placed at the entrance of new NATO headquarters during the move to the new building, in Brussels, Belgium April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Earlier on Sunday Lukashenko said tanks and planes of the 30-nation military alliance had been deployed 15 minutes from the Belarusian border.

“There is no NATO buildup in the region,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in a statement.

“NATO’s multinational presence in the eastern part of the Alliance is not a threat to any country. It is strictly defensive, proportionate, and designed to prevent conflict and preserve peace.”

She said NATO was closely monitoring events in Belarus, which has been gripped by protests since an Aug. 9 election that Lukashenko’s opponents say was rigged, and called for basic freedoms to be respected, including the right to peaceful protest.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told Lukashenko that Moscow was ready to assist Belarus in accordance with a collective military pact if necessary and that external pressure was being applied to the country.

Belarus’ western neighbours Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are members of NATO. The alliance sent four battlegroups to these countries and Estonia to deter potential Russian incursions after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The number of troops in these combat-ready groups, which are led by Britain, Canada, Germany and the United States, hovers around 5,000.

Poland signed a joint defence pact on Saturday with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on the basis of which the United States will increase the number of troops in Poland.

The deal involves training Polish forces in reconnaissance and command, and a possible rapid increase in the U.S. troop presence there to 20,000 in case of an increased threat.

Russia has said it has no intention of attacking NATO and accuses the alliance of destabilising Europe.

Asked whether an extraordinary meeting of NATO ambassadors could be organised in coming days to discuss the situation in Belarus, Lithuania’s ambassador to the Brussels-based alliance said there was no such a plan at the moment.

“If the situation deteriorates, then of course everything is possible,” Deividas Matulionis told Reuters on Sunday.

He said discussions on the matter had already taken place at NATO, but no decisions were expected at this stage.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, John Chalmers and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Catherine Evans

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