Lithuania says Belarus could be behind recent migrant influx


VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuania has detained a group of nine Iraqi asylum-seekers who had entered the Baltic country from Belarus, officials said Monday.

It’s the latest group of migrants crossing from Belarus, with Lithuania pointing the finger at its southern neighboring for allegedly being involved in the influx.

“It is obvious that a hybrid war is being waged against Lithuania, and illegal migration flows are one of the means,” Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said. Her country has voiced criticism of neighboring Belarus for its brutal crackdown following a presidential election.

“Those flows of the illegal migrants who travel to Lithuania are not just random cases. These are well organized. There are flights from Baghdad and Istanbul to Minsk,” she said, referring to Iraqis who fly to Belarus from those two cities.

Lithuania claimed that Belarus border guards have been covering the tracks of the migrants, with Bilotaite saying that it “shows that officials themselves might be cooperating in those processes.”

She added that “all possibilities and preparations have been coordinated with the armed forces” to tackle the migration situation.

The latest group that entered Lithuania came Sunday. Last week, 52 migrants were detained by Lithuania’s border officials. They are citizens of Iraq, Syria, Belarus and Russia and most of them sought asylum in the Baltic country.

So far in 2021, about 160 people, mostly Iraqis, have entered Lithuania from Belarus — which is three times more than in all of 2020. Compared to 46 in 2019 and 104 in 2018.

The countries — both formerly part of the Soviet sphere — share a nearly 680-kilometer-long (about 420-mile) frontier that serves as the European Union’s external border.

Lithuania’s support for the Belarus opposition is longstanding, and its capital, Vilnius, has already become a center for Belarusians in exile.

In 2020, the Baltic nation gave shelter to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in Belarus’s disputed election that President Alexander Lukashenko won after 26 years of authoritarian rule. A number of Belarusian nongovernmental organizations also have relocated to Vilnius which hosts a university that Lukashenko banned.

In recent weeks, the two countries have expelled a number of diplomats and last week. Last month, the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet en route to Vilnius to arrest, Raman Pratasevich, an opponent to Lukashenko.

Lukashenko has warned that Belarus could retaliate against the latest EU sanctions by loosening border controls against Western-bound illegal migration and drug trafficking.

“We were stopping migrants and drugs — now you will catch them and eat them yourself,” he said in a speech on May 26.

___ Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.

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