Lithuania detains a Russian citizen suspected of 1991 crimes

VILNIUS Fri Mar 14, 2014 3:48pm EDT

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VILNIUS (Reuters) - A Russian former tank officer was detained by a Lithuanian court on Friday on suspicion of involvement in a 1991 Soviet Army attack aimed at halting the Baltic state's drive for independence from the Soviet Union, the General Prosecutor's office said.

Thirteen civilians were killed and more than 1,000 wounded when Soviet troops stormed Vilnius's TV tower and a building of the national broadcaster on January 13, 1991. Infantrymen fired shots and a tank fired blank rounds into a crowd at the tower.

The Prosecutor's office said a Vilnius court ordered the detention for two months pending investigation of a Russian citizen it named as Yuri Mel, born in 1968, on suspicion of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes in Vilnius.

The former lieutenant had been arrested at Lithuania's border crossing point with Russia's Kaliningrad exclave on Wednesday, the prosecutor office said. Lithuanian media said he had been on a visit and was held while returning to Kaliningrad.

Moscow is highly sensitive to any attempt to prosecute its former soldiers, especially in ex-Soviet states. Lithuanian prosecutors are seeking a total of 79 citizens of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus over the 1991 case.

"We have sent around hundred request for assistance to Russian prosecutors, but they all were totally ignored," Elena Martinoniene, a spokeswoman at the General Prosecutor office, told Reuters.

The attack on the television tower was the most deadly action by the Soviet Army in trying to crush secessionist governments in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. All eventually won independence before the Soviet Union finally collapsed at the end of 1991.

The states, despite Moscow's objections, went on to become members of NATO and the European Union.

Tensions in the region of the former Soviet Union have been growing since Moscow seized effective control of the southern Ukrainian territory of Crimea, declaring that ethnic Russians, a majority on the peninsula, were under threat from Ukrainian militants following the overthrow of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich.

Six percent of Lithuania's population are ethnic Russians.

(Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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