Belarus denies plans to join Russian invasion but is 'rotating' troops at border

At least 1,582 civilians in Mariupol have been killed • Russian forces plan to fire on Belarus from Ukraine in order to draw them into war.

 A view shows the Gozhsky training ground during military exercises held by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus in the Grodno region, Belarus, February 12, 2022.  (photo credit: Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS)
A view shows the Gozhsky training ground during military exercises held by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus in the Grodno region, Belarus, February 12, 2022.
(photo credit: Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS)

Belarus has no plans to join the Russian invasion of Ukraine but is sending five battalion tactical groups (BTGs) to its border on rotation to replace forces already stationed there, its Chief of General Staff Viktor Gulevich said on Saturday.

A top Ukrainian security official on Friday warned Belarus not to send troops to Ukraine, saying Ukraine was showing restraint towards Belarus despite the country being used as a launchpad for Russian planes.

“I want to underline that the transfer of troops is in no way connected with (any) preparation, and especially not with the participation of Belarusian soldiers in the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine,” Gulevich said.

Ukraine's military has accused Russian aircraft of firing at Belarusian border villages from Ukrainian air space on Friday to provide an excuse for an offensive.

"This is a PROVOCATION! The goal is to involve the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus in the war with Ukraine!" its Air Force Command said in an online statement.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Air Force Command's statement.

The alleged attacks took place as Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko was meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, according to Ukraine's State Centre for Strategic Communications.

The result of this meeting could be an attack by Belarus across Ukraine's northern border, the center said in statement.

"According to preliminary data, Belarusian troops may be drawn into an invasion on March 11 at 21:00 (1900 GMT)," it said.

Ukraine is showing restraint towards Belarus but will fight back if Belarusian soldiers cross the border to join the Russian invasion, Ukraine's top security official Oleksiy Danilov said on Friday.

Danilov said Ukraine was being careful in dealing with Belarus despite the country being used as a launchpad for Russian planes to attack Ukraine, Danilov said.

Ukrainian senior officials said Russia was doing everything possible to draw Belarus into the conflict, after failing in what Western countries say was an initial plan for a lightning assault on the capital.

"We also understand that the Belarusian government has been doing everything possible to avoid joining this war," Ukrainian deputy interior minister Yevheniy Yenin said on national television on Friday.

There was no immediate comment on the allegations from Belarus.

At least 1,582 civilians in Ukraine's southeastern city of Mariupol have been killed as a result of Russian shelling and a 12-day blockade, the city council said in an online statement on Friday.

"We will never forget and will never forgive this crime against humanity," it said.

Russian forces plan to fire on Belarus from the territory of Ukraine in order to draw the Moscow ally into the war, Minister of Defense of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov warned on Friday afternoon. According to Ukrainian media, the Russian shelling may have already begun.

Reznikov added that Russia intends to carry out an attack from Ukraine's airspace to cover up the crime, but has noted that the Ukrainian army has not planned, does not plan and will not plan any aggressive actions against Belarus.

Russia might use chemical weapons in Ukraine in a "false flag" attack to retroactively justify its invasion, a Western official said, but adding that there is nothing to suggest broader use of such weapons in the war.

"We think that chemical weapons could be used in a false flag attack to provide a retrospective justification for Russia's invasion of Ukraine," the official said on Friday.

"The context that we've been looking at it in is from a false flag perspective. Clearly, whilst the Russians are highly likely to have a chemical weapons capability, there is nothing to suggest that they intend to use at this point in a major escalation of the current conflict."

The UN human rights office said on Friday it has received "credible reports" of several cases of Russian forces using cluster munitions in populated areas in Ukraine, adding that indiscriminate use of such weapons might amount to war crimes.

"Due to their wide area effects, the use of cluster munitions in populated areas is incompatible with the international humanitarian law principles governing the conduct of hostilities," spokesperson Liz Throssell told Geneva-based journalists.

"We remind the Russian authorities that directing attacks against civilians and civilian objects, as well as so-called area bombardment in towns and villages and other forms of indiscriminate attacks, are prohibited under international law and may amount to war crimes."

Cluster bombs are made up of a hollow shell that explodes in mid-air, dispersing dozens or even hundreds of smaller 'bomblets' over a wide area. Russia is not a party to a 2008 convention banning cluster munitions although it is bound by international humanitarian law, particularly the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks.

Asked about a potential change in Facebook policy that would allow some users to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers, Throssell called it "concerning" and said her office would raise it with the company. 

The fighting continues

Three airstrikes launched Friday morning towards the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro killed at least one person, state emergency services said, adding that the strikes were close to a kindergarten and an apartment building. Additionally, four were killed and six were injured in Russian strikes on an airfield in Lutsk, according to Pravda.

Casualties were reported in the Sumy Oblast due to Russian artillery shelling, with two civilians killed in Kerdylivshchyna village, according to Pravda.

Russian forces hit a psychiatric hospital near the eastern Ukrainian town of Izyum on Friday, regional authorities said.

Oleh Synegubov, governor of the Kharkiv region, said 330 people had been at the hospital and that 73 were evacuated. The number of casualties was being established, he said, describing it as a "brutal attack on civilians."

The eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv is under relentless bombardment from Russian forces, the city's mayor said in a televised interview on Friday.

"As of today, 48 (of the city's) schools have been destroyed," said Mayor Ihor Terekhov. The city has a peacetime population of about 1.4 million.

On Sunday, Ukraine warned that Russia was mustering forces to encircle Dnipro, home to about one million people before the invasion started.

The mayor of Odessa on Friday warned that Russia will try to surround the city to carry out a possible naval assault, and may even go via Transnistria, the Russian-aligned breakaway in Moldova, to do so.

Strategic turning point

President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that Ukraine had reached a strategic turning point in its war with Russia, but cautioned that it was not possible to say how long fighting would continue.

"It is impossible to say how many days we still have to free Ukrainian land. But we can say we will do it. For we have already reached a strategic turning point," he said in a televised address, urging the international community to increase sanctions pressure on Russia.

 

Fortress Kyiv

 KYIV MAYOR Vitali Klitschko visits a checkpoint of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv earlier this week as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues.  (credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS) KYIV MAYOR Vitali Klitschko visits a checkpoint of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv earlier this week as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues. (credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)

On Friday, the Ukrainian military warned that Russian forces plan to eliminate Ukrainian defenses west and northwest of Kyiv to block the city, AFP reported.

According to Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko, the Ukrainian capital has been "transformed into a fortress," where "every street, every building, every checkpoint has been fortified," AFP reported.

Volnovakha and Mariupol

Also Friday, Russian-backed separatists were reported to have captured the Ukrainian city of Volnovakha north of the besieged Azov Sea port of Mariupol, the RIA news agency quoted Russia's defense ministry as saying.

Volnovakha is strategically important as the northern gateway to Mariupol.

Evacuations

Some 7,144 people were evacuated from four cities on Friday, a sharply lower number than each of the two previous days, Zelensky said on Friday night. He accused Russian troops of refusing to allow civilians out of Mariupol and vowed to try to deliver food and medicines there on Saturday.

Residents have been cowering under fire, and without power or water, in the strategically important city of over 400,000 people for more than a week and attempts to arrange a local ceasefire and safe passage out have failed repeatedly.

"We hope it will work today," Vereshchuk said in a televised statement in which she said she hoped several other humanitarian corridors would also be opened.

Russia's defense ministry said it would open humanitarian corridors from Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Chernihiv.

Zelensky said that not a single civilian had been able to leave Mariupol on Thursday, a day after an attack on a hospital which he said killed three people.

He blamed Russian shelling for the failure of the evacuation attempt.

Meanwhile, over 220,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine have now made it into Russia via the Donbas region, TASS reported, citing regional security agencies.

"As of the morning of March 11, almost 222,000 people crossed the Russian border, including over 50,000 children," the source told TASS, adding that over 193,000 people have arrived in Russia from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the two pro-Russian separatist-controlled breakaway states in Donbas whose independence was only recognized by Russia.

More than 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine as of March 11, the UN migration agency said on its website on Friday.

That represents around 200,000 additional refugees since the International Organisation for Migration's last report through to March 10.

Separately, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Friday that at least 1.85 million people were displaced within Ukraine.

Establishing humanitarian corridors in Ukraine for evacuations and aid is the "bare minimum" to be done now, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday, adding it was important for the top Russian and Ukrainian diplomats to have met.

Speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of a forum in Turkey, he called the nuclear rhetoric from Russian President Vladimir Putin "dangerous" and "reckless" and repeated the alliance would not send troops or jets into Ukraine.

"I continue to believe it is important that we work hard for a political, diplomatic solution," Stoltenberg said. "The bare minimum is to establish humanitarian corridors where people can get out and humanitarian aid can get in."

A no-fly zone over Ukraine "would most likely...escalate the war to a full-fledged war between NATO and Russia," he added.

Asked whether Moscow's invasion shed new light on Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems, which triggered US sanctions on Ankara, Stoltenberg said it showed the importance of NATO allies not being dependent on Russian military equipment.

Airfield strikes

Russian troops have launched a high-precision, long-range attack on two military airfields in the Ukrainian cities of Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk, taking them out of action, Russian news agencies quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying on Friday.

The strike on Lutsk resulted in four dead and six injured, Pravda reported, citing the city's mayor Ihor Polishchuk.

This follows statements made by Polishchuk early in the morning about explosions near the airfield.

Writing on Facebook, the mayor urged residents to head to shelters and to avoid posting photos, addresses and coordinates.

Ivano-Frankivsk Mayor Ruslan Marcinkiv also confirmed on Facebook that his city's airfield was attacked.

Images and footage of the destruction in the cities were shared on social media by Ukrainian parliamentarian Inna Sovsun. 

Casualties

Russian forces have managed to take down three Ukrainian Mil Mi-25 helicopters and eight drones, including five Bayraktar TB-2s, as well as destroying 107 military facilities in the past 24 hours, Russian news agency TASS reported citing Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

"Since the start of the operation, a total of 3,213 Ukrainian military infrastructure facilities have been disabled," Konashenkov said, according to TASS. "As many as 98 aircraft, 118 unmanned aerial vehicles, 1,041 tanks and other combat armored vehicles, 113 multiple rocket launchers, 389 field artillery pieces and mortars and 843 military motor vehicles were destroyed." 

According to Ukraine's Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Russian forces have killed more civilians than soldiers in their invasion of Ukraine.

"I want this to be heard not only in Kyiv but all over the world," Reznikov said.

At least 78 children have been killed in Ukraine since Russian invaded, Ukrainian human rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova said on Friday.

She said fighting around the southern city of Mariupol, the eastern town of Volnovakha and the town of Irpin in the Kyiv region meant the authorities had not been able to establish how many people had been killed or wounded in those places.

In total, Ukraine says that Russia has suffered over 12,000 casualties, alongside 353 tanks, 1,165 armored combat vehicles, 125 artillery systems, 31 air defense systems, 83 helicopters, 57 aircraft, three boats, seven drones and more.

According to Ukrainian Deputy Economy Minister Denis Kudin, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused $119 billion in damages to its infrastructure, Ukrainian media reported.