Wednesday 10/28/20
WITH EU NEIGHBOURS

Belarus closes western borders as military tensions rise

Military manoeuvres with NATO troops are being conducted in Lithuania and Ukraine. At the same time, the Belarusian army is training with Russian forces in the west of the country near the EU's external border.
27 August 2020, Belarus, Minsk: Members of the AMAP (OMON) special police forces take position during a protest at the Independence Square against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Photo: Ulf Mauder/dpa.
Members of the AMAP (OMON) special police forces take position during a protest at the Independence Square. Photo: Ulf Mauder/dpa.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday closed the country's western borders with EU neighbours Lithuania and Poland as military tensions continue to rise in the region.

Belarus' protection force on the border with Ukraine has also been strengthened, Lukashenko said on Thursday evening in Minsk, according to the state agency BelTA.

"We are forced to withdraw troops from the streets," Lukashenko said.

"I do not want Belarus, and Poland and Lithuania, to turn into a theatre of war that does not solve our problems," he added.

The move comes as military manoeuvres with NATO troops are being conducted in Lithuania and Ukraine. At the same time, the Belarusian army is training with Russian forces in the west of the country near the EU's external border.

Elsewhere, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews wanting to make a pilgrimage to a holy site in central Ukraine for the Jewish New Year were stuck on the Belarusian side of the border because of an entry ban imposed by Kiev to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The border closures come as a group of mostly European countries triggered a mechanism to subject Belarus to an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses and election fraud.

OSCE offers to mediate

The group, which includes Britain, France and the United States, announced the step at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna.

Belarus has not complied with the OSCE's previous offer to mediate between the government and the political opposition, the 17 OSCE members said in a statement.

Instead, "the response of the Belarusian authorities has been to systematically target those who would engage in dialogue and to continue ... violent repression of peaceful protesters, including women and young people," the statement said.

The OSCE's so-called Moscow Mechanism for rights investigations was last triggered in 2018, to probe reported violations in Russia's Chechnya region.

The Belarusian opposition has said it is compiling a blacklist of police officers implicated in an ongoing violent crackdown on protesters, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Thursday.

"We have been given the names of those who have been torturing and beating people," Tikhanovskaya said in a statement posted on her movement's Telegram channel.

7,000 people detained

At least 7,000 protesters have been detained since last month's disputed presidential election. The United Nations has received 450 reports of torture and other abuse of detainees.

"We are preparing a list of officials and officers who have participated and continue to participate in such police brutality," she said.

Tikhanovskaya, 38, came second in the August 9 election, according to the controversial official tally. She and her supporters alleged the voting was rigged to maintain long-time President Alexander Lukashenko's grip on power.

The European Union has refused to recognize the official election results and has given safe haven to Tikhanovskaya, who fled to EU member state Lithuania within days of the election under pressure from Belarusian authorities.

Lukashenko, 66, has led the former Soviet republic for more than a quarter-century, tolerating little dissent.

He claims the police crackdown is a justified response to efforts to overthrow his government.

Tikhanovskaya is scheduled to meet EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, EU foreign affairs spokesperson Peter Stano announced.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is to host Tikhanovskaya for informal talks as part of a meeting of the top diplomats of the 27 EU countries, Stano said.

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