Putin says Russia has set up 'reserve police force' to help Belarus leader if needed
By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Polina Ivanova and Andrei Makhovsky MOSCOW/MINSK (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday the Kremlin had set up a 'reserve police force' to support Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, although it would not be deployed unless unrest there spun out of control. The remarks were the strongest signal yet that Russia is prepared to use force if needed in Belarus, its closest ally among former Soviet republics.
By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Polina Ivanova and Andrei Makhovsky
MOSCOW/MINSK (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday the Kremlin had set up a "reserve police force" to support Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, although it would not be deployed unless unrest there spun out of control.
The remarks were the strongest signal yet that Russia is prepared to use force if needed in Belarus, its closest ally among former Soviet republics. The comments triggered a swift response from Belarus's NATO-member neighbour Poland, which demanded Moscow jettison any such plan.
"We have of course certain obligations towards Belarus, and the question Lukashenko raised was whether we would provide the necessary help," Putin told state television.
"I told him Russia would fulfil all its obligations. Alexander Grigorivich (Lukashenko) asked me to create a reserve police force and I have done that. But we agreed this would not be used unless the situation got out of control."
The Belarusian opposition's Coordination Council said it was unacceptable for Russia to have set up armed forces of any kind for use in Belarus and that such a move "violated international law".
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's response was swift.
Poland "urges Russia to immediately withdraw from plans of a military intervention in Belarus, under (the) false excuse of 'restoring control' – a hostile act, in breach of international law and human rights of Belarusian people, who should be free to decide their own fate", Morawiecki tweeted in English.
Poland - a Soviet satellite until the collapse of communism three decades ago - also summoned the Belarusian ambassador to clarify what Warsaw called "unfounded accusations" that it had designs on Belarusian territory.
Lukashenko has accused Poland of plotting to take over the Grodno region bordering Poland and Lithuania if Belarus falls apart, Belarus's state news agency Belta reported.
The country has been plunged into turmoil following an Aug. 9 election, which the opposition says was rigged to extend Lukashenko's 26-year rule. He denies electoral fraud.
Security forces have beaten protesters and arrested thousands in a bid to stamp out mass demonstrations and strikes.
On Thursday, Belarusian police detained around 20 journalists preparing to cover a protest in central Minsk and confiscated their telephones and identity documents, a Reuters witness said.
The Interior Ministry later said the journalists had been driven to a police station for officers to check they had valid accreditaton allowing them to work as journalists. It said all those with official accreditation would be released, and denied that the journalists had been detained.
RUSSA'S BUFFER AGAINST NATO
Belarus is politically, economically and culturally intertwined with Russia and its fortified frontiers with NATO members are crucial to Moscow's defence strategy.
Moscow and Minsk have even proclaimed a "union state", complete with a Soviet-style red flag. But Lukashenko has had a difficult personal relationship with Putin and is viewed as a truculent and erratic ally in Moscow.
Nevertheless, Russia has taken steps to shore up the Minsk authorities, such as sending journalists to staff state TV after employees resigned to protest what they described as orders to broadcast propaganda.
Lukashenko who has borrowed large sums of money from Moscow said he had agreed with Putin to refinance a maturing $1 billion loan, though Russia's finance ministry said it had not received any such request.
The West has so far acted cautiously, wary of provoking a Russian military response as took place in Ukraine in 2014.
In Berlin, EU foreign ministers discussed possible sanctions against a short list of up to 20 Belarusians blamed for electoral fraud or the abuse of protesters.
(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw; Writing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sujata Rao)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.