Lithuanian diplomats leave China as relations sour over Taiwan

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BEIJING/VILNIUS, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Lithuania's diplomatic delegation to China left the country on Wednesday in a hastily arranged exit, diplomatic sources said, as relations soured further over Taiwan, which opened a de facto embassy in Vilnius last month.

Beijing, which has stepped up pressure on countries to sever relations with the island, downgraded diplomatic ties with Lithuania in November after Taiwan openeda representative office in the Baltic state's capital. read more

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.

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A diplomatic source told Reuters a group of 19 people comprising embassy personnel and dependents left Beijing en route to Paris. Another diplomatic source familiar with the situation called their departure a response to "intimidation".

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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

Speaking to reporters in Vilnius, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said there was uncertainty over the legal status of Lithuanian diplomats in China before their departure.

He told Reuters earlier that 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. read more .

Taiwan's foreign ministry voiced its "highest respect to the Lithuanian government and its diplomatic decision-making" on Wednesday, and called on Taiwanese companies to support closer economic ties with the small Baltic republic.

Lithuania's ruling coalition agreed a year ago to back what it described as "those fighting for freedom" in Taiwan.

On Wednesday the Lithuanian embassy building in a gated Beijing compound appeared empty. No one answered a knock on the door or telephone call. A photograph taken a day earlier showed two bouquets of flowers at the front door.

Lithuania had recalled its ambassador in September, several weeks after China demanded the envoy's withdrawal and said it was recalling its envoy from Vilnius. read more

The United States has spoken out in support of Lithuania during its row with China, adding to U.S.-Chinese tensions.

Lithuania's foreign ministry said it was ready to continue a dialogue with China and restore the functions of the embassy once a mutually beneficial agreement has been reached.

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Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Andrius Sytas Writing by Tony Munroe Editing by David Goodman, Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich

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