KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The president of Belarus on Thursday ordered the country’s security forces to tighten control over the border with Lithuania, which earlier this week started turning away immigrants attempting to cross in from Belarus.
Lithuania, a member of the European Union, has faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants in the past few months. It says that’s due to retaliation by Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko after the EU put sanctions on his country over diverting a plane to the capital of Minskand arresting a dissident aboard.
The surge of Iraqis and others is emerging as another source of tension between autocratic Belarus and its European neighbors to the west. On Tuesday, Lithuania said it reserved the right to use force to stop such illegal immigration and turned away 180 people attempting to enter the country.
Lukashenko on Thursday ordered defense and security agencies to “close every meter of the border” in order not to let immigrants Lithuania turns away back into Belarus.
“God forbid they start implementing the policy of removing people they invited over there through official border crossing points,” Lukashenko said during a meeting with defense and security officials. “Starting from today, not a single person should set foot on the territory of Belarus from the adjacent side, be it from the south or from the west,” he added.
Authorities in Belarus this week alleged that Iraqi immigrants forcibly expelled from Lithuania to Belarus had injuries, including dog bites, and had to be hospitalized. Belarus also claimed Wednesday that a “non-Slavic” person died from injuries at a border town but Lithuania dismissed the report as propaganda from a hostile regime.
Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas called the report “an obvious provocation. Lithuania is under hybrid attack and spreading such information is a classic example of this process.”
Lithuania, a nation of less than 3 million people, has no physical barriers on its 679-kilometer (420-mile) long border with Belarus. Some 4,090 migrants, most of them from Iraq, have crossed this year from Belarus into Lithuania.
The Lithuanian Interior Ministry this week distributed a video shot from a helicopter showing large groups of immigrants being escorted to Lithuania’s border by Belarusian border guard vehicles.
Polish media report that some migrants have also sought to enter EU member Poland from Belarus, though on a lesser scale.
The Belarusian State Border Committee charged on Thursday that Lithuania “continues to force migrants to trespass the Belarusian border” and reported an attempt to “aggressively remove eight migrants … to the Belarusian territory,” thwarted by Belarusian border guards.