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Russia to open air base in Belarus by 2015

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(MINSK) - Russia on Tuesday announced an agreement to open an air base in Belarus by 2015, part of the two post-Soviet neighbours' plan to forge a political and military alliance on the doorstep of the European Union.

"We are beginning to work on a plan to create here a Russian air base with fighter jets," Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying at a meeting with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

"We plan to continue to address the issues necessary for strengthening the defensive capabilities of our Belarussian colleagues and brothers," Shoigu was quoted as saying by Lukashenko's office.

The base is due to open in 2015, while the first fighter jets will appear in Belarus already this year, Shoigu was quoted as saying.

He added that under an earlier agreement, Russia next year will send to Belarus four batteries of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems.

Russia already has a radar station and a navy radio station in Belarus but the air unit will be Russia's first major military base in that country.

The two countries already have a customs union and cooperate within the framework of the so-called Union State alliance.

Together with the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, they also have agreed to create a Eurasian economic union, an EU-style project championed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring together ex-Soviet states.

Relations between Moscow and Minsk have at times also been prickly, as mercurial Belarus strongman Lukashenko has in recent years launched populist attacks against Russia over energy price hikes.

Belarus, which has borders with EU states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, has grown increasingly isolated from the West under Lukashenko's rule and repeatedly squabbles with the European Union over its rights record.

Moscow and Minsk plan to hold joint military exercises in Belarus in September.

The West has in the past expressed concern over the two countries' manoeuvres on Poland's border, saying they run counter to an improvement in ties between Moscow and NATO.

In his meeting with the Russian defence minister, Lukashenko defended his military cooperation with Moscow, saying it was not aimed against Europe.

"We are not hiding from everyone that we are the closest peoples and are trying to build a single policy," Lukashenko was quoted as saying.

"If we are preparing our armed forces, security forces for the defence of our common interests and lands then we should conduct appropriate events including military exercises," he said.

"I do not understand why the West is so suspicious about them."

Putin chose Belarus for his first foreign trip abroad after returning to the Kremlin for a third term last May. He went to Minsk after rejecting US President Barack Obama's personal invitation to a White House summit.

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