Remains of hundreds of Jews unearthed in Nazi-era mass grave in Belarus

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

BREST, Belarus (Reuters) – Soldiers in Belarus have unearthed the bones of hundreds of people shot during World War Two from a mass grave discovered at the site of a ghetto where Jews lived under the Nazis.

The grave was uncovered by chance last month on a construction site in a residential area in the center of Brest near the Polish border.

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

A soldier from a special “search battalion” of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Soldiers wearing white masks on Tuesday sifted through the site with spades, trowels and their gloved hands to collect the bones. They also found items such as leather shoes that had not rotted.

Dmitry Kaminsky, a soldier leading the unit, said they had exhumed 730 bodies so far, but could not be sure how many more would be found.

“It’s possible they go further under the road. We have to cut open the tarmac road. Then we’ll know,” he said.

Some of the skulls bore bullet holes, he said, suggesting the victims had been executed by a shot to the back of the head.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War Two and tens of thousands of its Jews were killed by the Nazis.

The site of the mass grave served from December 1941 to October 1942 as part of a ghetto, areas created by the Nazis to segregate Jews and sometimes other minorities from other city dwellers. Brest was part of Poland before the war.

The remains were discovered when builders began to lay the foundations for an apartment block.

Local authorities want to bury the bodies in a ceremony at a cemetery in the north of the city.

“We want to be sure that there are no more mass graves here,” said Alla Kondak, a local culture official.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Putin to watch parachute drop, part of war games that have rattled West

Russian President Vladimir Putin uses a pair of binoculars while watching the Zapad-2017 war games, held by Russian and Belarussian servicemen, with Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov seen nearby, at a military training ground in the Leningrad region, Russia September 18, 2017.

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin arrived at a remote army training ground on Monday to watch a military parachute drop, part of Russia’s biggest war games since 2013 that have the West looking on nervously.

NATO officials say they are watching the “Zapad-2017” (“West-2017”) war games with “calm and confidence”, but many are unnerved about what they see as Moscow testing its ability to wage war against the West. Russia says the exercise is rehearsing a purely defensive scenario.

A parachuter descends before landing at a firing range during the Zapad-2017 war games, held by Russian and Belarussian servicemen, outside the town of Ruzhany in Belarus, September 17, 2017.

A parachuter descends before landing at a firing range during the Zapad-2017 war games, held by Russian and Belarussian servicemen, outside the town of Ruzhany in Belarus, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

The Russian Defence Ministry said Monday’s parachute drop, at a military facility in the Leningrad region, would see 450 paratroopers and nine armored vehicles dropped from military transport planes, a show of military might that is likely to be heavily covered on state TV.

Putin, commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces, has often appeared at such events in the past, using them to bolster his image among Russians as a robust defender of the country’s national interests on the world stage.

The Russian leader, 64, has not yet said whether he will run for what would be a fourth presidential term in March, but is widely expected to do so.

Once the paratroopers and their vehicles have landed behind the lines of their simulated enemy, their task will be to wage war against what the defense ministry in a statement called “illegal armed formations” and to destroy their opponents’ vital infrastructure and command centers.

A Belarussian Mi-8 helicopter flies above a firing range during the Zapad-2017 war games, held by Russian and Belarussian servicemen, outside the town of Ruzhany in Belarus, September 17, 2017.

A Belarussian Mi-8 helicopter flies above a firing range during the Zapad-2017 war games, held by Russian and Belarussian servicemen, outside the town of Ruzhany in Belarus, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

The over-arching Zapad war games run to Sept. 20 and are taking place in Belarus, western Russia and Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad.

Moscow says almost 13,000 Russian and Belorussian service personnel are taking part, as well as around 70 planes and helicopters. Almost 700 pieces of military hardware are being deployed, including almost 250 tanks, 10 ships and various artillery and rocket systems.

 

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

 

Estonia says Russia may put troops in Belarus to challenge NATO

FILE PHOTO: Estonia’s Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna speaks during the official ceremony welcoming the deployment of a multi-national NATO battalion in Tapa, Estonia, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

By Robin Emmott

VALETTA (Reuters) – Estonia’s defense minister said on Thursday that Russia may use large-scale military exercises to move thousands of troops permanently into Belarus later this year in a warning to NATO.

Russia and Belarus aim to hold joint war games in September that some North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies believe could number more than 100,000 troops and involve nuclear weapons training, the biggest such exercise since 2013.

Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna said Estonia and other NATO governments had intelligence suggesting Moscow may leave Russian soldiers in Belarus once the so-called Zapad 2017 exercises are over, also pointing to public data of Russian railway traffic to Belarus.

Tsahkna cited plans to send 4,000 railway carriages to Belarus to transport Russian troops and gear there, possibly to set up a military outpost in its closest ally.

“For Russian troops going to Belarus, it is a one-way ticket,” Tsahkna told Reuters in an interview in Malta.

“This is not my personal opinion, we are analyzing very deeply how Russia is preparing for the Zapad exercises,” he said before a meeting of EU defense ministers.

Russia’s Defence Ministry did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment on the subject.

Moscow denies any plans to threaten NATO and says it is the U.S.-led alliance that is risking stability in eastern Europe. The Kremlin has not said how many troops will take part in Zapad 2017.

“We see what they are doing on the other side of the EU-NATO border. Troops may remain there after Zapad,” Tsahkna said, saying that Tallinn had shared its concerns with Baltic and NATO allies. He put the number of potential troops in the thousands.

Such a move could see Russian troops on the border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia just as the U.S.-led NATO alliance stations multinational battalions in the Baltic region in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

“QUESTION OF TRUST”

The scale of this year’s Zapad exercises, which date from Soviet times when they were first used to test new weapon systems, is one of NATO’s most pressing concerns, as diplomats say the war games are no simple military drill.

Previous large-scale exercises in 2013 employed special forces training, longer-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that were later used in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and in its intervention in Syria, NATO diplomats said.

Russia, bridling at NATO’s expansion eastwards into its old Soviet sphere of influence, says its exercises are a response to NATO’s 4,000-strong new deterrent force in the Baltics and Poland that will begin to rotate through the region from June.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in January the scenario for the Zapad 2017 exercises would “take into account the situation linked to increased NATO activity along the borders of the Union state,” Russian media cited, in a reference to the union of Russia and Belarus.

The exercises, to be held simultaneously on military training grounds in Russia and Belarus, aim to focus on joint planning, command tactics and joint troop formations, he said.

“In the future we plan to strengthen the practical nature of such exercises, taking into account the emerging foreign policy realities,” Shoigu added, in an apparent reference to the expansion of NATO, which is soon to include Montenegro.

The U.S. Army’s top European commander has called on Russia to open its exercises to observers to calm Baltic concerns.

Asked about Moscow’s possible motives for leaving troops in Belarus, Tsahkna said it was likely about President Vladimir Putin’s image as a strong leader at home, as well as cementing ties with Belarus, which was alarmed by the Crimea annexation.

“Russia has presidential elections next year and Putin needs to show strength to the Russian people,” Tsahkna said. “It’s also a question of trust with Belarus.”

The West has sought to improve ties with Belarus over the past two years, lifting some sanctions in an overture to the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko, the man the West calls Europe’s “last dictator.”

But Belarus remains Russia’s ally and a member of Putin’s Eurasian trade bloc. Belarus Defence Minister Andrei Ravkov has echoed Russia’s position that NATO is a threat, also accusing Ukraine of raising tensions by aligning itself with the West.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Ukraine Chernobyl victims remember on 30th anniversary

A man lights a candle at a memorial, dedicated to firefighters and workers who died after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, during a night service in the city of Slavutych

By Alessandra Prentice and Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine held memorial services on Tuesday to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which permanently poisoned swathes of eastern Europe and highlighted the shortcomings of the secretive Soviet system.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a botched test at the nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine triggered a meltdown that spewed deadly clouds of atomic material into the atmosphere, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

President Petro Poroshenko attended a ceremony at the Chernobyl plant, which sits in the middle of an uninhabitable ‘exclusion zone’ the size of Luxembourg.

“The issue of the consequences of the catastrophe is not resolved. They have been a heavy burden on the shoulders of the Ukrainian people and we are still a long way off from overcoming them,” he said.

More than half a million civilian and military personnel were drafted in from across the former Soviet Union as so-called liquidators to clean-up and contain the nuclear fallout, according to the World Health Organization.

Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, most from acute radiation sickness.

Over the past three decades, thousands more have succumbed to radiation-related illnesses such as cancer, although the total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate.

Nikolay Chernyavskiy, 65, who worked at Chernobyl and later volunteered as a liquidator, recalls climbing to the roof of his apartment block in the nearby town of Prypyat to get a look at the plant after the accident.

“My son said ‘Papa, Papa, I want to look too’. He’s got to wear glasses now and I feel like it’s my fault for letting him look,” Chernyavskiy said.

The anniversary has garnered extra attention due to the imminent completion of a giant 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) steel-clad arch that will enclose the stricken reactor site and prevent further leaks for the next 100 years.

The project was funded with donations from more than 40 governments and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Even with the new structure, the surrounding zone – 2,600 square km (1,000 square miles) of forest and marshland on the border of Ukraine and Belarus – will remain uninhabitable and closed to unsanctioned visitors.

The disaster and the government’s reaction highlighted the flaws of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy. For example, the evacuation order only came 36 hours after the accident.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said he considers Chernobyl one of the main nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union, which eventually collapsed in 1991.

(Additional reporting by Margaryta Chornokondratenko, Sergei Karazy and Andriy Perun; Editing by Robert Birsel and Richard Balmforth)