EU border agency to police Lithuania-Belarus frontier from next week

Frontex's Executive Director Leggeri presents the agency's annual report in Brussels
Frontex's Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri presents the annual report of the EU's border agency in Brussels, Belgium January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo
  • EU border agency deploying 60 officers
  • 2,100 migrants crossed from Belarus this year; 1,400 in July
  • Situation "created and fuelled" by Belarus, head of Frontex says
  • Belarus President says EU sanctions are smothering his country

DRUSKININKAI, Lithuania, July 19 (Reuters) - European Union border agency Frontex will deploy 60 border guards with helicopters and vehicles to Lithuania's frontier with Belarus next week, after a surge in migrants crossing illegally,which the EU says has been orchestrated by Minsk.

In response to EU sanctions, President Alexander Lukashenko has said Belarus will no longer stop people trying to enter Lithuania. Vilnius has since accused Minsk of flying in migrants from abroad to send illegally into the 27-nation bloc, with 1,400 having crossed the border just this month, twice as many as the total for the rest of the year.

Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri told reporters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius that the migrant crisis "was created and is fuelled by" Belarus, accusing Minsk of using irregular migration as leverage with the EU and Lithuania.

He later said Frontex has also seen an increase of illegal migrants coming from Belarus to Poland, although the situation there seemed to be under control for now.

The 60 border patrol officers, with about 30 vehicles and two helicopters plus staff to screen and interview migrants, will be deployed in Lithuania from July 29 until Oct. 6.

Most of the migrants are from Iraq. Lithuania has said the migrants are flown to Belarus on direct flights from Baghdad and Istanbul, a charge that Minsk has not directly addressed. Belarus did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Leggeri's accusations.

Speaking in an interview published on Belarus news agency Belta's website on Monday, Lukashenko said sanctions were "smothering" Belarus, and guarding the border "costs a lot of money".

Criminal gangs in Lithuania were responsible for illegal migration, and the Lithuanian authorities should fight it, he said: "If they need help, we will give it - not for free of course."

The rapid intervention by Frontex, which was requested by Lithuania, is the agency's first such mission since it began policing Greece's land border with Turkey in March 2020.

Relations between Belarus and the EU, strained by a crackdown on Lukashenko's opponents, deteriorated sharply after Belarus forced down a Ryanair flight in May and arrested a dissident journalist on board. The EU responded with sanctions.

Lithuania is building a 550-km (320-mile) razor-wire barrier on the border, which is mostly unfenced. Construction has stalled as it looks for ways to procure the razor wire.

EU members Slovenia and Denmark will supply razor wire "as fast as possible", in addition to what Lithuania is procuring itself, Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said.

"The situation when the illegal migration is used as a tool against Lithuania is intolerable. Everyone in Europe understands the seriousness of it, and we are supported not only in words but also in action," said Bilotaite.

Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Janis Laizans in Druskininkai Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff

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