Lithuania says Belarus could be behind recent migrant influx

International

FILE – In this file photo dated Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, inside Lithuania’s parliament in Vilnius, Lithuania. Lithuania has detained nine Iraqi asylum-seekers who had entered the Baltic country from Belarus, officials said Monday June 7, 2021, pointing a finger at Belarus for allegedly being involved in sending repeated groups of immigrants into Lithuania.(AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis, FILE)

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuania has detained nine Iraqi asylum-seekers who had entered the Baltic country from Belarus, officials said Monday, pointing a finger at Belarus for allegedly being involved in sending repeated groups of immigrants into Lithuania.

“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 Belarus for its brutal crackdown following a presidential election there last year that the opposition says was rigged.

“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 the capital of Belarus.

Lithuania said Belarus border guards have been covering the tracks of the migrants, with Bilotaite saying it “shows that officials themselves might be cooperating.” She added that Lithuania’s armed forces have been consulted in how to tackle the migration situation.

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

On Monday, a member of the Seimas, Lithuania’s Parliament, traveled to the Belarus border. Lawmaker Laurynas Kasciunas said there is a direct link between certain international flights to Minsk and groups of immigrants trying to come to Lithuania.

”Migration waves correlate with them,” he said.

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

So far in 2021, about 160 people, mostly Iraqis, have entered Lithuania from Belarus — three times more than in all of 2020.

Lithuania’s support for the Belarus opposition is longstanding, and its capital, Vilnius, has 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. 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 Brussels, the European Commission said the situation in Lithuania “shows the need for a European system to manage migration and asylum. Irregular migration as well as people arriving to Europe to flee war or persecution can happen at any of the EU’s external borders.”

The bloc’s executive body added that it stands ready to offer operational support to Lithuania through the EU’s agencies.

“But a structural response is needed,” the European Commission said.

The 27-nation bloc wants to reform its asylum system, hoping that its countries will finally share responsibility for people seeking sanctuary or better lives. The move comes after years of chaos and disputes among its members over the handling of migrants and refugees amid a recognition that the current EU system for deciding whether they should receive protection or be sent home has failed.

___ Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Lorne Cook in Brussels, contributed to this report.

___

Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.