Belarus launches joint drills with Russia; Dnipro death toll rises to 40

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Jan. 16 (UPI) — Belarus announced Monday it is launching two weeks of joint air force drills with Russia as Moscow seeks to strengthen its alliances amid its troubled invasion of Ukraine.

A “joint tactical flight exercise” of aviation units of the two countries’ armed forces has started, the Belarusian defense ministry announced in a press release posted on the Telegram social media app.

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The new joint exercises came as the death toll from a Russian missile strike on an apartment building in the eastern city of Dnipro over the weekend was raised to 40, including three children.

The main goal of the exercise, Minsk said, “is to increase operational compatibility in the joint performance of combat training tasks,” including aerial reconnaissance, joint airspace patrolling of borders, air support for ground troops, tactical air assault landings, delivery of goods and evacuation of the wounded.”

While Belarusian army itself has not participated Russia’s 11-month-old invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian military figures have warned in recent weeks of possible attacks from their northern neighbors, especially in light of the Kremlin’s major military setbacks in the eastern Donbas region.

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Belarus was a launching ground for Russia’s northern invasion of Ukraine in the early weeks of the war last year before being beaten back by Kyiv’s forces.

Late last month Russia continued to build on its alliance with Belarus as President Vladimir Putin personally visited Minsk and met with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus continues to provide land for Russian troops to train, as well as launch ballistic missiles into Ukraine. Some believed that Putin would lean on Lukashenko to commit some of his own troops to the Ukrainian invasion, which the Belarusian president has been hesitant to do.

The British Ministry of Defense has said it does not believe joint exercises in Belarus are a precursor to launching a renewed assault into northern Ukraine, but drills announced Monday have nevertheless ignited more worries of a possible strike.

Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat told official media the country is ready for the Russia-Belarus exercises and will “respond to any threat emerging.”

“We will monitor these exercises,” he told state television. “The airfields that the enemy uses on the territory of Belarus are under close observation by our intelligence. Therefore, we will react immediately if any threats emerge. There are no particular signs of a threat at the moment as we can’t see any huge grouping of forces.”

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Also on Monday, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine reported that 40 people have been confirmed killed in Saturday’s attack on the Dnipro high-rise apartment building, died, including three children.

Some 75 people, including 14 children, were injured and 46 were reported as missing in the wake of the attack, officials said.

In his nightly address Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said among the dead was a 15-year-old girl. Among the dozens rescued include six children, he said.

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Firefighters conduct work while smoke rises from a building after it was attacked by Russian drones in Kyiv, Ukraine, on October 17, 2022. Photo by Vladyslav Musiienko/UPI | License Photo