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Lukashenko rebuffs Russian air base plans for Belarus

The Belarusian president has claimed he knows nothing about Moscow's bid to set up an air base in Russia's ex-Soviet neighbor. His move signals a growing strain between the Kremlin and one of its closest allies.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday that his country does not need a Russian base, despite Moscow pushing to build the facility in what is a strategic nation bordering the EU.

"Today we don't need an air base, even less the air force. We need specific arms. I have spoken publicly about it to (Russian president) Putin," Lukashenko said.

He also claimed to not know about the plans.

"I hear shrieks from the opposition about the deployment of a Russian airbase. I don't know anything about it," Lukashenko was quoted as saying by official news agency Belta.

"I feel surprised and, to some extent, angry and annoyed by that."

Lukashenko's comments come weeks after

Putin green-lighted the project

and ordered Russian defense and foreign ministries to start talks with Belarus, which also shares borders with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.

Around 1,000 opposition activists

demonstrated against the base

in Minsk on Sunday.

Walking the line

Russia already has a radar system and a navy communications facility in its ex-Soviet ally, but an air base would present a major boost to its military presence in the neighboring state.

The two countries have traditionally close relations, marked by Belarus' dependence on Russian energy and subsidies. However, Lukashenko has been slightly more open to cooperating with the West since the start of the Ukraine crisis.

He has also attempted to stay neutral in the conflict between Kremlin and the EU.

On Tuesday, Lukashenko hinted that the air base bid might be used as a means for Moscow to exert pressure on Minsk.

"Maybe they are worried that we are going to go to the West, and they raised the issue so that the West starts asking us about it and having doubts whether we really want to normalize ties," he said.

Heading for elections

Kremlin had no immediate comment on Lukashenko's remarks.

Lukashenko is shunned by most of the developed countries over reports on human rights abuses and his crackdown on political dissent.

He has ruled Belarus since 1994, and is all but certain to win his fifth term in elections on Sunday against token challengers.

dj/jr (Interfax, Reuters, AFP, AP)

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