Belarus crisis escalates with rival claims over alleged death of Iraqi migrant

Lithuania dismisses claims that border guards witnessed a man's death in a border village

A member of Lithuania's State Border Guard Service patrols the border with Belarus which has become a flashpoint amid tensions between Brussels and Minsk. AP
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Europe’s newest border row escalated on Wednesday as Belarus and Lithuania traded accusations over the alleged death of an Iraqi migrant.

Border officials in Belarus claimed that a man was found injured in a border village overnight and subsequently died at the scene.

But Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas dismissed the report as a provocation aimed at undermining his country.

Thousands of people have crossed the border from Belarus into EU member Lithuania in recent weeks, many of them Iraqis.

The EU suspects Belarus of orchestrating the wave of arrivals in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the bloc.

Lithuania said it reserved the right to use force to stop illegal immigration, drawing criticism from human rights activists.

Egle Samuchovaite of Lithuania’s Red Cross, said turning migrants away would leave them trapped between two countries in an unsafe environment.

“In the absence of a physical border barrier with Belarus, the question arises as to how to ensure that there is no disproportionate use of force against asylum seekers, which by any means could not be justified,” she said.

Migrants are seen through fences in a camp near the border town of Kapciamiestis, Lithuania. AFP

Lithuania has sheltered Belarusian opposition figures including opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who met UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week.

It has no physical defences along the 679-kilometre border with Belarus but wants to start building some in response to the crisis. It accuses Belarus of ferrying migrants to the border.

Brussels has pledged support to help Lithuania tackle the issue, but EU funds are not normally used to finance border barriers.

No deaths have been confirmed at the border during the recent surge, which has seen more than 3,000 people enter Lithuania. Only a few dozen people crossed the border illegally last year.

Belarusian border guards claimed they had witnessed the death of a “non-Slavic” man during the night from Tuesday to Wednesday. The Interfax news agency said he was an Iraqi citizen.

Border guards further claimed that 40 migrants including women and children had suffered physical injuries after being returned by Lithuania.

Mr Anusauskas said the claims were part of Belarus’s efforts to undermine its neighbour. “Lithuania is under hybrid attack and spreading such information is a classic example of this process,” he said.

Lithuania’s Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told reporters that the story about the Iraqi man was “nonsense, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale”.

The EU’s sanctions on Belarus stem from a disputed election last year in which President Alexander Lukashenko declared victory.

Widely condemned as rigged, the election was followed by mass protests and a crackdown on opposition figures.

Sanctions were tightened in June after Belarus detained a dissident journalist on a Ryanair flight which was forced to land in Minsk.

Updated: August 04, 2021, 2:51 PM