MOSCOW, May 26 (AFP/Reuters): Belarusian leader Alexander Lukash-enko said Thursday that Russia had begun moving nuclear weapons to its territory, which borders the European Union, ratcheting up tensions with the West over the Ukraine conflict.
On the diplomatic front, Russia's foreign ministry announced a visit to Moscow by China's special envoy for Ukraine, Li Hui-Beijing's latest effort to broker an end to the fighting.
Li's visit to the Russian capital, where he is expected to meet foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday, comes after he met with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.
"The transfer of nuclear munitions has begun," Lukashenko told reporters during a visit to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Russia's move "yet another example of making irresponsible and provocative choices".
She added, however, that "we have not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture... nor any indication that Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons from Belarus".
There was no immediate confirmation by Russia of the nuclear weapon transfer.
Lukashenko has allowed his territory, which borders Ukraine as well as EU and NATO members Poland and Lithuania, to serve as a staging ground for Russia's Ukraine offensive.
In March, Putin said he would station "tactical" nuclear weapons-in effect short-range atomic missiles-in Belarus, drawing condemnation from the West.
Adding to the global worries, Russia said Thursday that it had sent fighter jets to stop two US bomber planes from "violating the state border" over the Baltic Sea, the second such incident this week.
The Russian defence ministry said it had scrambled Su-27 and Su-35 fighter jets, saying it identified "the air targets as two US Air Force B-1B strategic bombers".
After the manoeuvre, the Russian fighters "returned safely to their air base", it said.
In Japan, Tokyo's military also said it deployed fighter jets against Russian planes travelling along parts of its coastline.
Ahead of the visit by China's envoy Li to Moscow, the European Union told him on Thursday that it expected Beijing to help pressure Russia to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine and withdraw its troops from the country.
Senior EU foreign policy official Enrique Mora met Li in Brussels on the latest leg of a European tour by Beijing's special representative for Eurasian affairs.
Russia and China have close relations, with Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting Moscow in March and saying their bilateral ties were "entering a new era".
While China says it is a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict, it has been criticised for refusing to condemn Moscow for its offensive.
Top US officer General Mark Milley said Thursday that Russia would not achieve a military victory in Ukraine, while also cautioning that Kyiv was unlikely to force out all of Moscow's troops anytime soon.
His comments underscored forecasts that the war in Ukraine is set to drag on, with neither side positioned to win a clear-cut victory and no negotiations currently taking place.
Meanwhile, a Russian missile hit a clinic in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro on Friday, killing at least two people and wounding 23 in an attack that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described as a crime against humanity.
Video footage showed a devastated building with smoke pouring out of it and rescue workers looking on. Much of the upper floor of what appeared to be a three-storey building had been badly damaged. A covered corpse lay in the road nearby.
"Another (Russian) missile attack, another crime against humanity," Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter, describing the damage to a psychological clinic and a veterinary clinic in Dnipro.
"Only an evil state can fight against clinics. There can be no military purpose in this. It is pure Russian terror."
Regional governor Serhiy Lysak said a 69-year-old man had been killed, adding: "He was just passing by when the Russian terrorists' rocket hit the city."
The governor said another man's body had been pulled out of the rubble, and that 21 of the 23 wounded had been taken to hospital. Three were seriously hurt, he said.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry called it a serious war crime under the Geneva Conventions, which set out how soldiers and civilians should be treated in war.
Russia did not immediately comment on the events in Dnipro, a large city that has frequently come under fire since Moscow began its full-scale invasion 15 months ago.
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