Russia, Belarus hold joint paratrooper drills near Poland

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarusian and Russian paratroopers staged joint drills on Friday near the Polish and Lithuanian borders, during a standoff between Belarus and the EU over migrants camped in freezing forests at the frontier.

The exercise at the Gozhsky training ground involved airborne units landing and carrying out combat training, including capturing and holding a bridgehead and searching and destroying enemy targets, the Belarusian defence ministry said.

Russia's defence ministry confirmed that its paratroopers were taking part in the exercise. Both countries said troops would return to bases when the drills were over.

The drills involved Russian Ilyushin Il-76 military transport planes and helicopters of the Belarusian Air Force, Minsk said in a statement circulated on social media.

The European Union has accused Belarus of mounting a "hybrid attack" on the bloc by flying in thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, and pushing them to try to cross illegally into Poland. It is gearing up to impose new sanctions on Minsk.

Neighbours of Belarus have expressed concern that the crisis could escalate into a military confrontation.

Belarus is a close ally of Moscow. President Alexander Lukashenko said this week he could cut off Russian gas supplies to Europe through pipelines over Belarus. But the Kremlin appeared to distance itself from that threat on Friday, saying Russia had not been consulted before Lukashenko's remarks and would meet all gas delivery contracts.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth, Maria Kiselyova and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Peter Graff)

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