EU condemns Belarus for ‘direct attack’ using migrants

International

FILE – In this file photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, Migrants stand behind a fence inside the newly built refugee camp in the Rudninkai military training ground, some 38km (23,6 miles) south from Vilnius, Lithuania. Lithuanian authorities said Friday that the Baltic country has stemmed the flow of third country migrants illegally crossing from neighboring Belarus, saying the influx of people knocking at the external border of European Union seems to have halted and hundreds have been turned away. These people have a completely different culture. That’s why we are worried about this,” said local resident Kristina Slovenska. “We are worried about our safety.” (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis, File)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Wednesday condemned what it called Belarus’s “aggressive behavior” in organizing illegal border crossings with migrants into Latvia, Lithuania and Poland with the aim of destabilizing the 27-nation bloc.

So far this year, more than 4,100 asylum-seekers, most of them from Iraq, have illegally crossed from Belarus into Lithuania. That’s 50 times more than during all of 2020. They’re being sheltered in temporary camps across the Baltic EU member.

Poland said Wednesday it had deployed nearly 1,000 troops to its border with Belarus to help border guards cope with a surge of migrants — again mostly from Iraq — who were trying to enter the country.

“This aggressive behavior … is unacceptable and amounts to a direct attack aimed at destabilizing and pressurizing the EU,” said a statement by Slovenia, which holds the bloc’s rotating presidency until the end of the year, after emergency talks among the bloc’s interior ministers.

“The European Union will need to further consider its response to these situations in order to increase its effectiveness and to deter any future attempts to instrumentalize illegal migration in this manner,” the statement said.

The migrant movements spiked dramatically after the EU slapped sanctions on Belarus officials. The measures were imposed after President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a crackdown on opponents and protesters after claiming victory in a vote last year that the West denounced as rigged. His main election challenger fled to Lithuania.

Slovenia said EU nations are “determined to take all necessary measures to effectively protect all the EU external borders, by counteracting Belarus’ aggression.” They also “recognize the need to strengthen the entire external border of the European Union to prevent illegal border crossings in the future.”

No details about how that might happen were provided.

Many of the migrants were believed to have arrived in Belarus by plane on commercial flights from Iraq. Those flights have stopped for now, perhaps in part due to the EU’s threat to impose visa restrictions on Iraqi citizens and officials.

Still, Lithuania’s border guard released video footage on Wednesday which it said reveals that migrants are being pushed across the border into EU territory by Belarus riot police. Another video showed several people cross into Lithuania and immediately return to Belarus to be filmed by Belarus officials.

After talks with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte on Wednesday, EU Parliament President David Sassoli accused Lukashenko of “exploiting these poor people, men and women.”

“I have seen these outrageous actions when officials push people across the border. It is both an issue of human rights, and also a question of protecting the border of the EU,” Sassoli said. “It is an organized activity of the Lukashenko regime.”

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas accused Lukashenko of launching a “hybrid attack” against the bloc by channeling migrants to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland in retaliation for the EU’s sanctions.

Kallas said “this is no refugee crisis, but this is a hybrid attack on the European Union.”

Merkel said she would raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday. Belarus depends heavily on Russian energy supplies and Moscow has authorized loans to prop up the country’s beleaguered economy.

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Dapkus reported from Vilnius. Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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

Follow all AP stories on developments in Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/Belarus.

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

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