VILNIUS – The European Union promised Tuesday to help bloc member Lithuania handle an influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, which the Baltic nation says is encouraged by authorities in neighboring Belarus as part of their standoff with the West.
During a visit to Lithuania's border village of Medininkai, European Council President Charles Michel pledged that “we will do our utmost to provide more support so that the Lithuanian authorities can overcome these difficulties and find solutions.”
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, accompanying Michel, accused Belarusian authorities of encouraging the flow of migrants as a “hybrid attack.”
“We are guarding not only Lithuania’s, but also the EU’s external border,” she said.
Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has announced that his country would halt cooperation with the EU on stemming illegal migration in retaliation for bruising economic sanctions the bloc slapped on Belarus over the diversion of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist.
Last week, Lithuania declared a state of emergency due to an influx of migrants across the 679-kilometer (422-mile) border. More than 1,200 people were detained after entering from Belarus last month – twelve times more than in previous years. Another 131 were discovered walking in a border wood on Monday night.
Lithuania has set up tent camps to accommodate the growing number of migrants, most of them from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Cameroon. The Baltic country is sending delegations to Turkey and Iraq later this month to discuss the matter with local governments.
Michel promised to contact the countries where migrants were coming from.
But Lukashenko reaffirmed his warning that Belarus will no longer try to stem the flow of migrants.
“If some think that we will close our borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia they are mistaken,” Lukashenko said Tuesday during a government meeting.
“We won't hold anyone, they are coming not to us but to the enlightened, warm and cozy Europe,” he added mockingly.
The Belarusian Union of Journalists, a pro-government media organization, said in a statement that the number of migrants heading West via Belarus will top 5,000 this month and warned that flows might begin into Poland too.
Belarus was rocked by months of protests fueled by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 election that have been widely condemned — including by the EU — as rigged. Authorities responded with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and many other opposition figures fled to Lithuania amid the crackdown.
Lithuania this week said it was granting diplomatic status to Tsikhanouskaya's office — a symbolic gesture that does not envision the office acting in a consular role. That angered Belarus, whose foreign ministry on Tuesday ordered Lithuania to reduce its diplomats in the country to a minimum, without specifying the number.
“Giving a deliberately illegitimate structure an imaginary official status will remain an illusory attempt to form a parallel reality,” a ministry statement said.
Last week, Belarus said it would suspend a readmission agreement with the EU intended to stem illegal migration.
“They criticize our government for our refusal to fulfill the readmission agreement,” Lukashenko said. “They want to turn Belarus into a filtration facility for people fleeing wars and other woes, they want us to take them and place them in camps here. It's not going to happen after the policy they pursued toward Belarus and Russia.”
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said the country held the door open for resuming cooperation on migration with the EU by not outright spiking the deal.
Last month, the EU imposed new sanctions on Belarus over the diversion of the passenger plane. They targeted the country’s top export items, including potash — a common fertilizer ingredient — petroleum products and tobacco industry exports.
The 27-nation bloc had previously banned the Belarusian flag carrier from EU skies and airports and ordered EU airlines to skirt Belarusian airspace over the May 23 incident when Belarus diverted a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania and ordered it to land in Minsk where dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were arrested.
Pavel Latushka, a leading Belarusian opposition activist who was forced to leave the country last year under official pressure, said that Belarusian authorities have encouraged migratory flows to strike at the West.
“Lukashenko is taking revenge on the EU,” Latushka told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Warsaw. “They have developed an entire scheme to get migrants to Minsk and move them to Europe in retaliation for the sanctions.”
He charged that Lukashenko's decree issued last week, which offered visa-free entry for nationals of 73 countries who are willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Belarus, opened the door to migrants.
Latushka claimed that people from Mideast countries have been flown from Iraq to Minsk aboard Iraqi Airways flights. They have allegedly been provided with temporary accommodation by Centrkurort, a company controlled by Belarus' presidential administration, and a special unit of the Belarusian border guard agency has taken them to the Lithuanian border and helped them cross it in the most vulnerable areas, he charged.
“The Belarusian authorities treat the movement of migrants as a special operation,” Latushka said, claiming that Lukashenko's older son, Viktor, was in charge of it.
Belarus' Border Guard Committee wouldn't comment on Latushka's claims.
__ Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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