VILNIUS, Lithuania — 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, who accompanied Michel to the border with Belarus, 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 with Belarus. 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 the woods just over the border on Monday night, according to border control officials.
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 the governments of these countries.
Michel promised to contact the countries where migrants were coming from. “In Europe, we are not naive, nor are we scared,” he added.
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.
Belarus has been 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 to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Last week, Belarus declared it would move to suspend a readmission agreement with the EU that is 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.”
Last month, the EU imposed new economic sanctions on Belarus over the diversion of the passenger plane. The sanctions have 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.
___ Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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