* Photos contradict Russian assertions about withdrawal
* U.S. says pictures taken in last few days
* NATO spokesman says Russia still has 40,000 troops on
(Adds NATO spokesman's comments)
BRUSSELS, May 13 The U.S. government released
new satellite pictures on Tuesday which it said showed Russian
forces were still near the Ukrainian border in recent days,
contradicting Russian assertions they had been withdrawn.
President Vladimir Putin announced last Wednesday that the
troops had moved, but NATO and the United States both said they
had seen no sign of a Russian withdrawal from the frontier.
NATO officials have previously estimated Russia has around
40,000 soldiers close to Ukraine's border, exacerbating the
worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
The commercial satellite photos, published by the U.S. State
Department and on the U.S. Mission to NATO's Twitter account,
showed what appeared to be about 20 Russian helicopters at
Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border, on May 9.
Alongside it, the U.S. government published another image of
the same area on March 26, also showing helicopters. An earlier
photograph, from March 22, showed no helicopters in the area.
A second satellite photograph, taken in the Rostov area on
May 12, within 75 km (50 miles) of the Ukraine border, showed
what the U.S. government said was a group of Russian armoured
vehicles. The vehicles were also there in an earlier picture of
the same area, dated March 23.
Colonel Martin Downie, spokesman for Allied Command
Operations at NATO, said recent comments by Russia's leadership
on a troop withdrawal did not reflect realities on the ground.
"The reality is that Russia continues to have 40,000 high
readiness troops massed on Ukraine's border and another 25,000
troops in Crimea. The units on the latest satellite pictures
show mechanised infantry, armoured vehicles and combat
helicopters," he said in a statement.
"These units are there to intimidate Ukraine's government
and they could be used for an invasion of Ukraine, if ordered by
Moscow. We will continue to keep a close eye on Russia's actions
near our borders," he said.
When NATO published similar satellite photographs in April
showing a Russian military buildup near the Ukraine border, a
Russian official disputed their authenticity, saying the images
were from August last year.
The allegation was denied by NATO officials, who said the
photographs were recent.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO and NATO officials have said
the alliance will not get involved there militarily. NATO
countries have sent planes, ships and some soldiers to reinforce
eastern European members of NATO concerned about their security
following Russia's annexation of Crimea.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Eric