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In this photo provided by the Belarusian Presidential Press Service, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks to military personnel during his visit to Oshmyany District, Grodno region of Belarus on March 26, 2024. A Belarusian human rights group said Thursday, July 4, 2024 that at least 10 political prisoners have been freed since the country’s authoritarian president this week promised to release seriously ill people jailed in connection with massive protests nearly four years ago.

In this photo provided by the Belarusian Presidential Press Service, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks to military personnel during his visit to Oshmyany District, Grodno region of Belarus on March 26, 2024. A Belarusian human rights group said Thursday, July 4, 2024 that at least 10 political prisoners have been freed since the country’s authoritarian president this week promised to release seriously ill people jailed in connection with massive protests nearly four years ago. (Belarusian Presidential Press Service via AP)

TALLINN, Estonia — Belarus is hosting Chinese troops for a joint military drill near its border with NATO member Poland, officials said Tuesday, the first such exercise reflecting growing defense ties between the two countries.

The 11-day drill named Eagle Assault 2024 started on Monday at a shooting range in the Brest region close to Poland. It comes ahead of NATO’s summit in Washington that opens on Tuesday and after Belarus last week joined a regional security organization led by China and Russia.

Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country of 9.5 million with an iron hand for three decades, has relied on close ties with his main sponsor and ally Russia, and also sought to forge increasingly close relations with China.

Lukashenko has become a pariah in the West after unleashing a brutal crackdown on the opposition in response to massive protests in 2020, triggered by his disputed reelection that the opposition and the West denounced as rigged. The West has responded by imposing sweeping sanctions on Belarus.

He also allowed Russia to use his country as a staging ground for the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In 2023, Russia also moved some of its tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.

Lukashenko and his officials have repeatedly accused NATO of hostile intentions. “Our country takes all the necessary measures to avoid an escalation, but we will respond harshly to any attempt to violate our border,”

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said that as part of the joint drill, the Belarusian and Chinese troops will practice airborne assault, river crossing and residential area combat.

“The situation in the world is difficult, and so we are practicing new forms and methods of solving tactical tasks,” said Vadzim Dzenisenka, the chief of the Belarusian military’s special operations command.

A statement from the Chinese Defense Ministry said the forces will also practice hostage rescue and counter-terrorism operations. “The joint training aims to enhance the coordination capabilities of the participating troops and deepen practical cooperation between the two armies,” it said.

Belarus last week joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, established in 2001 by China and Russia to discuss security concerns in Central Asia and the wider region.

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