U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks to U.S. soldiers based in Grafenwoehr, Germany, on Nov. 7, 2019. (Jens Meyer/AP)

U.S. troops and tanks will arrive in Lithuania on Friday for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border, in a move the government said was not a message to its Russian-backed neighbor, where protests continue over a disputed election.

In an announcement on Wednesday evening, Lithuania said U.S. troops will be moved from Poland for pre-panned military exercises.

These are “defensive in nature and not directed against any neighbor, including Belarus”, it added.

However, the troops are arriving earlier and staying longer than the government indicated before the outbreak of protests in Belarus over a vote that returned President Alexander Lukashenko, key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to power.

The deployment, which will begin on Friday and will last until November, includes 500 American troops and 40 vehicles, such as Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, a Lithuanian army spokesman said.

On July 29, Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis told BNS wire the U.S. would send a battalion-sized troop contingent – between 300 to 1,000 soldiers – in September, for two weeks’ training, beginning in the middle of the month.

Karoblis repeated that information on Aug. 4 in an interview with public radio LRT.

Lithuania’s Defence Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

In addition to the U.S. deployment, up to 1,000 troops and military planes from France, Italy, Germany, Poland and others will participate in an annual exercise on September 14-25, the Lithuanian army spokesman said.

The ministry did not state any plans for those troops to stay beyond Sept. 25.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians have been protesting since the disputed Aug. 9 vote handed Lukashenko another term after 26 years in power.

The Belarus opposition and Western countries have said the election was rigged.

Lukashenko has accused NATO of a military buildup near Belarus’ borders, something the alliance denied, and has said he will ask for Russian military help, if needed.

Lithuania’s Karoblis said earlier this month that there was a real danger Russia would send forces to Belarus.

Reporting By Andrius Sytas; Editing by Simon Johnson and Steve Orlofsky

Source: Reuters, September 3rd, 2020