KYIV – Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has warned that his country will not try to stem a flow of illegal migrants to the European Union, a move that comes after the EU tightened its sanctions on the country.
The EU and the United States have slapped Belarus with tough sanctions after it diverted a passenger jet last month to arrest a dissident journalist.
Lukashenko on Tuesday night denounced the sanctions as what he called a “hybrid war” waged by the West against Belarus and warned the country's EU neighbors — Latvia, Lithuania and Poland —that they shouldn't expect Belarusian authorities to stop illegal migrants from crossing the border.
“They are wailing: "Ah, Belarusians are not protecting them — thousands of illegal immigrants are rushing into Lithuania, Latvia and Poland,” he said in the city of Brest on the border with Poland. "They demand that we protect them from smuggling and drugs. I just want to ask, are you mad? You have unleashed a hybrid war against us and now you demand that we protect you as we did before.”
Earlier this month, officials in Lithuania accused Belarus of opening the doors for migrants to cross their shared 680-kilometer (420-mile) border.
Belarus has been rocked by months of protests fueled by Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 election that was widely seen as rigged. The authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
On May 23, Belarusian flight controllers ordered a Ryanair jet traveling from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk, where authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist who was on board.
Outraged EU leaders responded by barring the Belarusian flag carrier from EU airspace and airports and directing European carriers to avoid Belarus’ airspace. They also warned of more sanctions to come targeting the main export sectors of the Belarusian economy.
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