An Iraqi man has reportedly died near the border of Belarus with Lithuania, as tensions between the two countries are running high. An inquiry into the death has been launched.
Belarusian border guards said Wednesday that they had found an Iraqi man in a "serious" condition in the village of Benyakoni, located near the border with Lithuania and about 200 kilometers northwest of the capital, Minsk.
The unidentified Iraqi national "died in the arms of the border guards," according to the Telegram channel of the Belarusian presidency, which is considered to be run in a semi-official capacity.
"The president was immediately informed of this shocking murder of an Iraqi returning from Lithuania," the channel said.
'Nonsense, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale'
Last week, Belarusian officials claimed that five Iraqis had been turned back from the border with Lithuania and had "injuries including dog bites and had to be hospitalized."
The Lithuanian Interior Minister, Agne Bilotaite, told reporters that the news was "nonsense, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale," according to the news agency Associated Press (AP).
Lithuania's Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas added that it was an "obvious provocation." The minister went on to claim that Lithuania was "under a hybrid attack and spreading such information is a classic example of this process," reported AP.
Probe to establish circumstances of death
Nonetheless, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has already ordered an inquiry into the incident, adding that the relatives of the deceased man would be located and issued visas to come to Belarus in order to retrieve the body.
Belarusian border guards claimed on Tuesday that some 40 migrants had been turned back at the Lithuanian border, including women and children, since the country introduced the use of pushbacks to stop migrants trying to enter from Belarus on irregular crossings.
The border officials added that these migrants had suffered "bodily injuries," accusing the EU member state of using “force" against migrants.
Desperate measures in 'Europe's last dictatorship'
The European Union meanwhile has accused Belarus of weaponising migrants at the border with Lithuania for political reasons, as Lithuanian officials suspect that the influx of migrants is being orchestrated by the Belarusian government under Lukashenko’s leadership.
Tensions between the two countries have flared up following the disputed reelection of the authoritarian leader in August 2020. Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenko is often referred to as Europe's last remaining dictatorship, as political dissent is routinely met with state-sponsored violence in the Eastern European nation.
Read more: Patrolling Lithuania's border with Belarus
His main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been recognized by several governments as the legitimate winner of the vote, has been living in exile in Lithuania ever since. Other opposition figures like her have also sought safety in Lithuania following Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on protests in the capital Minsk and elsewhere in the country following the election.
The EU has imposed a series of sanctions on Belarus in response, effectively cutting the nation off from much of the international community. On Tuesday, however, the spokesman of the Belarusian foreign ministry, Anatoly Glaz, rejected what he called "unfounded accusations” that Belarus was using migrants to exert pressure on the EU.
One-way ticket to Minsk
Lithuanian border guards have detained more than 4,000 migrants this year alone, the majority of whom have been identified as Iraqi nationals. In 2020, there were only 81 migrants caught crossing the same border.
The EU has meanwhile asked the Iraqi government to help stem the flow of migrants coming to Belarus. The majority are assumed to be arriving on scheduled flights to Belarus, making their way to the Lithuanian border once they have landed.
Lithuania has also accused Belarus of facilitating these flights to create havoc at the border.
Red Cross criticizes Lithuanian policy
On Wednesday, August 4, the Red Cross said that "Lithuania's decision to turn away migrants trying to cross the border from Belarus does not comply with international law," reported the news agency Associated Press (AP).
"Pushbacks of people seeking asylum are not compatible with the Geneva convention on refugee status, the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights, and other Human Rights instruments," said Egle Samuchovaite, program director for Lithuania's Red Cross, to AP.
About 35 Iraqis crossed the border without papers on Wednesday, Lithuania's border guard told AP. Those arrivals were significantly less than the triple digit numbers of people who have been arriving recently.