MOSCOW (AP) — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday accused Lithuanian authorities of dumping the bodies of migrants on the border between the two countries — a claim rejected by Lithuania amid soaring border tensions between Belarus and its European Union neighbors.
Lukashenko also warned that his country will stand squarely behind its ally Russia if the Ukrainian authorities launch an offensive against Moscow-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. He tried to cast the tensions over migrants as part of a purported Western plot against Belarus and Russia.
Lukashenko said at a meeting with his top military brass that Belarusian border guards found the bodies of two migrants left on the border over the weekend.
“They put a dead body, or, probably, a person who is still alive, in a sleeping bag and toss it on the border,” Lukashenko exclaimed. “What an abomination!”
Lithuania's State Border Guard Service rejected the Belarusian claim, saying that Belarusian authorities have repeatedly tried to stage and direct beatings, the crippling or even deaths of migrants, while blaming Lithuania for such “inhumane treatment.”
Lukashenko also charged Monday that Belarusian border guards also found several other freezing migrants who were barely alive at an abandoned farmhouse near the border with Lithuania.
The EU has accused Lukashenko of waging a “hybrid attack” against the bloc, using desperate migrants as pawns and tricking them into trying to cross into EU members Poland and Lithuania to destabilize the entire bloc. The EU says that is Lukashenko's revenge for EU sanctions imposed on Belarus after its brutal crackdown on democracy protesters.
Belarusian authorities have denied the accusations and shot back at the EU, accusing it of failing to offer safe passage to migrants. Since Nov. 8, a large group of migrants, mostly Iraqi Kurds, has been stranded in Belarus at a border crossing with Poland, trapped amid freezing temperatures as forces from the two countries face off. Most of the migrants are fleeing conflict or hopelessness at home, and aim to reach Germany or other Western European countries.
On Monday, Lukashenko had a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they talked about the situation on Belarus’ border with Poland, according to the Kremlin.
The Belarusian leader also ordered military officials Monday to raise troop readiness in view of NATO maneuvers near Belarusian borders.
Lukashenko dismissed Western concerns about alleged Russian plans to invade Ukraine, which also borders Belarus, saying that Moscow would have let him know about it if it had such intentions. But echoing statements from the Kremlin, he warned Ukrainian authorities that if they try to use force to reclaim areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland known as Donbas, Belarus would stand squarely with Russia.
“If they try to launch a small war in Donbas or somewhere on the border with Russia, Belarus will not stay aside, and it's clear whose side it will take,” he said.
Belarusian Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Viktor Khrenin said in the “medium term” Belarus and Russia will conduct joint drills to protect Belarus' border with Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities have voiced concerns that Russian troops could use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine. The Kremlin has denied plans to launch such attack and accused Ukrainian authorities and their Western backers of making the claims to cover up their own allegedly aggressive designs.
Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.
Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press