Putin shows military might as Russian paratroopers drop into Belarus in terrifying drills

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Russia is a close ally of Belarus and defence analysts said the “Slavic Brotherhood” military exercises were an overt display of muscle-flexing to underline Vladimir Putin’s support for Mr Lukashenko who has held office for 26 years. The Belarusian defence ministry said 900 Russians took part in the drills as well as 100 separate items of military equipment.

I cannot, I have no right to abandon the Belarusians

Alexander Lukashenko

Mr Lukashenko’s abrupt inauguration has been denounced as illegitimate by opposition leaders who have called for more protests against his controversial landslide victory in an election critics and several foreign governments insist was rigged.

The swearing-in ceremony would normally have been publicised as a major state occasion but was instead held without advance notice.

The opposition has staged more than six weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation.

The US and European Union are drawing up sanctions against officials involved in the election and a subsequent crackdown by the security forces.

The official news agency Belta said Mr Lukashenko placed his right hand on a copy of the constitution and swore the oath of office at a ceremony attended by several hundred people.

The 66-year-old leader said the country needed safety and consensus “on the brink of a global crisis”, an apparent reference to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said: “I cannot, I have no right to abandon the Belarusians.”

Protesters carrying red-and-white opposition flags began gathering in small groups in the capital, including outside at least three universities, local media footage showed.

Calls circulated on social media for mass protests for this evening.

Rumours had swept Minsk that Mr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, was preparing for a snap inauguration ceremony when a motorcade swept through the centre of the capital earlier today.

An opposition politician, Pavel Latushko, said the swearing-in was like a secret “thieves’ meeting”.

He said: “Where are the jubilant citizens? Where is the diplomatic corps?

“It is obvious that Alexander Lukashenko is exclusively the president of the riot police and a handful of lying officials.”

Mr Latushko called for “an indefinite action of civil disobedience”.

Meanwhile, Germany has reiterated it does not recognise Mr Lukashenko as president and called for EU sanctions to be agreed as soon as possible.

And Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said on Twitter: “Such a farce. Forget elections.

“His illegitimacy is a fact with all the consequences that this entails”.

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Mr Lukashenko, taking the oath for a new five-year term, promised to “faithfully serve the people of the Republic of Belarus, respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the person and of the citizen” and defend the constitution.

He has so far withstood the protests with backing from close ally Vladimir Putin.

Despite its population of only 9.5 million, Belarus matters to Russia as a buffer state against NATO and a conduit for Russian exports of oil and gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the swearing-in was “absolutely the sovereign decision of the Belarusian leadership”.

Asked if Mr Putin was invited, he said it looked as though the presence of foreign leaders had not been envisaged.

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