Lithuania to ask European leaders for help against China after diplomats pull out

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VILNIUS/BEIJING, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Lithuania is to ask European leaders for help against Chinese pressure after the Vilnius delegation and its dependents left China in a hasty departure and amid denials from Beijing there were concerns for Lithuanian diplomats' safety.

China downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania last month after the opening of a representative office by Taiwan in Vilnius under its own name.

Lithuania's diplomatic delegation to China left the country on Wednesday in a hastily arranged exit, and a diplomatic source familiar with the situation called their departure a response to "intimidation". read more

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China's foreign ministry said on Thursday that concerns over the safety of Lithuanian diplomats in China were groundless.

An advisor to Lithuania's president later told the Lithuanian public broadcaster that the leader of the Baltic state will ask European counterparts for help.

"The president will speak with the EU leaders about the pressure we face, we think this will lead to a discussion how the EU and particularly European Commission could help Lithuania in this matter," Asta Skaisgiryte said.

"We want that the conflict to be clear to our European partners, and that the economic actions would be as wide as possible," she added.

Claims that Lithuanian diplomats feared for their personal safety or that China forbade its citizens from working at the country's office are "purely fictitious," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a briefing in Beijing earlier.

Lithuanian authorities said on Wednesday they had summoned their top diplomat back from China for consultations and that the embassy would operate remotely for the time being.

Like most countries, Lithuania has formal relations with China and not self-ruled and democratically governed Taiwan, which Beijing views as its territory.

On Wednesday, a group of 19 people comprising embassy personnel and dependents left Beijing en route to Paris, a diplomatic source told Reuters. Another diplomat had called their departure a response to "intimidation".

Speaking to reporters in Vilnius on Thursday, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that Chinese authorities had informed diplomats that their identification cards would soon no longer be valid.

"We were given extremely short time...We asked for a longer period, simply because it would be complicated to arrange that return so quickly. We did not get any answer to the request, and people returned as fast as possible."

Unilateral changes to the status of a country's representatives would violate international treaties, he added.

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Landsbergis' statements on Thursday.

China had demanded Lithuania change the status of its Beijing embassy into a lesser charge d'affaires office. This would have mirrored the change China made to its own legation in Vilnius in response to the opening of Lithuania's Taipei office.

"The Lithuanian side also never raised the issue of personal safety to China," Wang said.

"If the Lithuanian side does not face reality, if it does not reflect and correct mistakes but instead shirks its own responsibility, then it will only challenge bilateral relations even more."

China has told multinationals to sever ties with Lithuania or face being shut out of the Chinese market, a senior government official and an industry body have told Reuters, dragging companies into the dispute. read more

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Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Andrius Sytas; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Himani Sarkar, Michael Perry and Angus MacSwan

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