Belarus puts southern military unit on alert in large-scale readiness exercise

Dec 13 (Reuters) - Russia's close ally Belarus announced a snap military inspection on Tuesday including increased combat readiness in the south of the country, the latest in a burst of exercises that have prompted concern from neighbouring Ukraine.

A flurry of Belarusian military action, including a counter-terrorism exercise last week, has kept Ukraine guessing about Minsk's intentions and raised concerns in Kyiv that it might join the war on Russia's side. Russia and Belarus are formally part of a "union state" and are closely allied economically and militarily.

In a video statement published by the Belarus Defence Ministry, Alexander Volfovich, state secretary of the Security Council, said the checks would encompass practically all Belarus's operational commands, but initially units that would be the first to respond to any escalation "either on the Belarus border or within the country".

As part of this, one military unit had been given a mission to secure "a target on the southern border", he said, adding that the tasks stemmed from analysis of what Russia terms its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

Belarus has said it will not enter the war in Ukraine, but President Alexander Lukashenko allowed Russia to invade northern Ukraine from Belarusian territory on Feb. 24, and in October ordered troops to deploy with Russian forces near the Ukrainian border.

Western military analysts say Belarus's small army lacks the strength and combat experience to make a decisive difference, but the risk that it might intervene from the north is a burdensome distraction for Ukraine as it focuses on fighting Russian forces in the south and east.

The Belarusian Defence Ministry had said earlier that, as part of the exercise announced on Tuesday, troops would have to move quickly to "designated areas" and set up bridge crossings over the Neman and Berezina rivers in western and eastern Belarus.

"During this period, it is planned to move military equipment and personnel, and to temporarily restrict the movement of citizens (transport) along certain public roads and sections of terrain," it said.

Separately, Andrei Lukyanovich, previously deputy commander of the air force, was promoted to take charge of the air force and air defence units, the state news agency Belta said, after his predecessor was removed on grounds of age last month.

Lukashenko also named Sergei Aleinik to head the foreign ministry, replacing Vladimir Makei, who died suddenly at the age of 64 last month. Officials have still not stated the cause of Makei's death.

Reporting by Felix Light; Writing by Caleb Davis; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Mark Trevelyan

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