Russian troop withdrawal depends in part on NATO pullback, Belarus says

MOSCOW, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Belarus said on Monday that the withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory would depend to a large extent on NATO pulling back its forces from near Belarus and Russia, opening up the possibility they could remain there indefinitely.

Russia deployed what NATO called its biggest military force to Belarus since the Cold War ended for joint exercises that started on Feb. 10, part of a wider buildup near Ukraine that has fuelled fears of a looming war. read more

The exercises to the north of Ukraine were meant to end on Sunday, but instead Minsk announced they would be extended, citing an increase in military activity near Belarus and Russia. read more

On Monday, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence took a harder position still, circulating remarks by the ex-Soviet republic's chief of general staff in a statement.

"The Russian Armed Forces' units will return to their permanent bases only when a objective need for that arises and when we decide," Belarusian army chief Viktor Gulevich was quoted as saying.

"In no small measure this will also depend on our Western counterparts. The forces and equipment deployed in the eastern European region, including near Belarus... are one of the factors that influence the development of the situation," he said.

He said that Minsk believed it was within its rights to demand the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO member forces from near the Belarusian border.

Belarus borders NATO members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Ukraine to the south.

Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Tom Balmforth, editing by Mark Trevelyan

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