The president of Belarus has ordered the country’s security forces to tighten control over the border with Lithuania, which had begun turning away migrants attempting to cross from Belarus earlier this week.
Lithuania, a European Union member state, has faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants trying to enter the country irregularly in the past few months. The surge is emerging as another source of tension between Belarus and its European neighbours to the west.
It says the flow has been a retaliatory tactic by Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko after the EU sanctioned his country for diverting a plane flying to Lithuania to force it to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk in order to arrest a dissident on board.
On Tuesday, Lithuania said it reserved the right to use force to stop such irregular immigration and turned away 180 people attempting to enter the country.
Lukashenko on Thursday ordered defence and security agencies to “close every metre of the border” so migrants turned away by Lithuania could not get 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 defence 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.
Lukashenko’s remarks came after the EU summoned the Belarusian envoy in Brussels on Wednesday over the border dispute.
The bloc has accused Minsk of orchestrating the crisis and using it as a political weapon in retaliation for EU sanctions.
Lithuania, a nation of fewer than 3 million people, has no physical barriers on its 679km (420-mile) border with Belarus and some 4,090 migrants have crossed over this year from Belarus.
“These practices must stop and Belarus must respect its international commitments in combating irregular migration and human trafficking and migrant smuggling,” a spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, told a news conference on Thursday.
The spokesperson said EU leaders had also held talks with the Iraqi government over the issue.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and other officials have sought a solution with the Iraqi government which could include a suspension of flights from Baghdad to Minsk.
Authorities in Belarus this week alleged that Iraqi migrants expelled from Lithuania to Belarus had injuries, including dog bites, and had to be hospitalised.
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.
Defence 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,” he said.
Local media in EU member Poland report that some migrants have also sought to enter the country from Belarus, though on a lesser scale.
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.
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.