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Ukrainians accuse Russia of attack meant to push Belarus into war

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia has used Belarus as a staging ground for its invasion of Ukraine. But the Belarusian military has not been involved directly. Some Ukrainians fear that could change. NPR's Tim Mak has more from near the Ukraine-Belarus border.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The area along the border is a swampy place, with poorly maintained roads and dense forests on each side, ideal for an ambush. And then there's this thick, thick mud that features in this part of Ukraine.

IHOR VORONCHENKO: (Through interpreter) There are only four roads to go through, and they understand this very well, that if they go through these roads, it's going to be hell.

MAK: That's senior Ukrainian military officer, Ihor Voronchenko, who said he once served in Belarus.

VORONCHENKO: (Through interpreter) If Belarusians will go against Ukrainians, it will be a crime for centuries. We will never be brothers again. I have many, many friends in Belarus. I speak to all of you, you know me very well. Don't let this happen.

MAK: If the Belarusians did invade, Ukrainian officials fear that they would target the Rivne Nuclear Power Plant, which is located near the border. The director general of that plant, Pavlo Pavlyshyn, said that he was quote "100%" sure that they did have the resources to defend the facility. But he also had some choice words for the Belarusians, who are allowing the Russian military to conduct operations from their territory.

PAVLO PAVLYSHYN: (Through interpreter) And even if they are not using their armed forces yet today, Belarus, they let the Russian army come through to us and fire at us from their territory and destroy our cities. It's a crime. It's a war crime.

MAK: Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko has said that his country's military would not directly take part in the invasion of Ukraine. But on Friday, the same day Lukashenko traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian officials said that Russia staged a provocation. Ihor Voronchenko, that senior Ukrainian military official, is one of just several sources who told NPR that the incident started Friday around 2:30 p.m. local time.

VORONCHENKO: (Through interpreter) We detected two S.U. 30 Russian Federation planes.

MAK: The officials say that Russian fighters entered Ukrainian airspace before doubling back and conducting three airstrikes on Belarusian territory.

VORONCHENKO: (Through interpreter) There are photos of the impact and there are leftovers from the bombs on our territory.

MAK: The Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs also posted a photo of what they said was the impact site and a map of the border area where they say the strike occurred. Ukrainian officials say that it was meant to draw Belarus into the war. According to Radio Free Europe, a Belarusian defense spokesperson said that the claim of strikes along the border was, quote, "nonsense." And over the past 24 hours, no invasion by Belarusian troops has occurred. Ukrainian officials say that rank-and-file Belarusian troops don't want to invade. The governor of Rivne Oblast, Vitaly Koval, oversees a region that borders Belarus in northwestern Ukraine.

VITALY KOVAL: (Through interpreter) We know that Belarus soldiers are refusing to come to Ukraine. They cut their tires on their cars. They mess up their equipment just to prevent the fighting. Belarusians are also peaceful people in their nature, and they also are victims of a maniacal government.

MAK: Still, there's a worry in the air. Restaurant workers closed up shop a little early Friday night as Ukraine waits for the possibility that Belarus may open a new front in the war. Tim Mak, NPR News, Rivne Oblast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.