Lithuania has started construction of a barrier on its border with Belarus amid a surge in illegal migrant crossings that Vilnius says Minsk is purposely organizing in retaliation for European Union sanctions.
Lithuanian State Border Guard Service spokesman Gedrus Mishutis said the military had begun installing a wire fence on July 9 along the border, some of which runs through densely forested areas, to strengthen control over the flow of migrants, hundreds of whom have flooded into the country in recent weeks.
Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite added that, once finished, the barrier will run for about 550 kilometers of the Baltic state's nearly 680-kilometer frontier at a cost of 41 million euros ($49 million).
Vilnius has accused Belarus of allowing migrants to cross into Lithuania in response to sanctions imposed by the bloc after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land on its soil and arrested opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, his Russian girlfriend.
Officials say that, over the past two months alone, more than 1,500 people have crossed into Lithuania, a twentyfold increase on the figure for the entire year in 2020.
Lithuania has been one of the staunchest critics of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, calling for a robust EU response against his regime since a disputed presidential election in August 2020. Lithuania and many other Western states have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner, instead saying the balloting was rigged and opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the victor.
In response to the sanctions, Lukashenka said earlier this week that his country wouldn't close its borders "and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia."
"We won’t hold anyone, they are coming not to us but to the enlightened, warm and cozy Europe," he added.
A Schengen free-travel-area member, Lithuania has said it is considering imposing border controls with neighboring EU countries to stop migrants from traveling to Western countries in the bloc.