Lithuania says migrants have been pouring across the border from Belarus in recent weeks and has accused authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka of organizing the influx, asserting that many have been lured from Iraq through a sharp increase in the number of flights from Baghdad to Minsk.
From the Belarusian capital, Vilnius contends, the migrants are moved to the border with Lithuania, where Belarusian border guards turn a blind eye as they cross into the European Union member state.
Vilnius has been one of the loudest critics of Lukashenka and advocates for his opponents since Belarus was thrown into turmoil last August when the 66-year-old strongman claimed a sixth presidential term in an election that many voters believe was rigged in his favor, setting off unprecedented protests.
Lithuania offered refuge to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who supporters say was the real winner of the vote, and to many others targeted in a violent crackdown. Vilnius has become a center for Belarusians in exile, and the two countries have expelled a number of diplomats as ties have worsened in recent weeks.
With the numbers of migrants stuck on the Lithuanian border rising fast, Vilnius has requested aid from the EU's border guard service, Frontex.
"Lithuanian authorities have requested Frontex support at its external border. The agency is currently working closely with the national authorities to determine the scope of its assistance," the Frontex press office told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.
Belarus and Lithuania share a nearly 680-kilometer-long frontier that serves as an external border of the EU, less than 40 percent of it monitored by electronic surveillance.
Lithuania is also calling on officials in Iraq and Turkey – also thought by officials to be a starting point of the alleged migrant chain to Belarus -- to more thoroughly check those traveling to Minsk.
"We asked the Iraqi government, the Turkish government to step up control of people departing via airports. We know the specific flights and therefore asked to take measures," Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Baltic News Service (BNS) on June 17.
According to data from the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service, 397 people have been detained after crossing from Belarus this year, according to data cited by BNS. By comparison, 81 people were detained in the whole of 2020, 46 in 2019, and 104 in 2018, BNS said.
"It is obvious that a hybrid war is being waged against Lithuania, and illegal migration flows are one of the means," Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said on June 7.
Lithuania said Belarusian border guards have been covering the tracks of the migrants, with Bilotaite contending this "shows that officials themselves might be cooperating." She said the Interior Ministry has consulted with Lithuania's armed forces on how to tackle the migration situation.
To deal with the rising numbers, Lithuania has set up a temporary camp at Pabrade, northeast of Vilnius and near the border with Belarus, to shelter and process those arriving, Lithuanian media have reported.
Officials in Belarus, as well as Iraq and Turkey, have not commented publicly on the claims. Lukashenka's administration and the Belarusian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to e-mails from RFE/RL seeking comment on June 18.
'Migrants And Drugs'
So far, the rising numbers of migrants arriving in Lithuania does not appear to have led to an uptick in asylum applications, according to the EU's European Asylum Support Office (EASO).
"The latest data on asylum applications (up to 6 June) does not indicate any notable increases in applications in Lithuania. Of course, this does not mean that there have not been increases in arrivals of migrants, but rather that, if this is the case, that they have not applied for international protection up until 6 June. It could also be that the data has changed since 6 June," Anis Cassar, an EASO spokesperson, said in e-mailed comments to RFE/RL.
Lukashenka vowed to unleash "migrants and drugs" amid fresh outrage and demands for more penalties and sanctions after his government forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to divert to Minsk on May 23, citing what is widely believed to have been a bogus bomb threat, and arrested Belarusian blogger and journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega.
In the wake of the incident, Brussels on June 4 banned Belarusian airlines from flying in EU airspace and using its airports.
Before the ban, Belarusian national carrier Belavia operated flights linking Belarus with some 20 airports in Europe, including Paris and Berlin.
On May 26, Lukashenka defended what many in the West have termed a "state hijacking." In a rambling speech to the rubberstamp parliament and members of his inner circle, Lukashenka said: "We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves."
Baghdad To Minsk
Belarus has never been a major tourist destination, and the current situation there has further harmed its reputation. Since his arrest after the Ryanair incident, Pratasevich, has been paraded on state TV with marks on his face and wrists, delivering what are widely considered to be coerced confessions and words of praise for Lukashenka.
While flights in and out of Minsk International Airport are down, there have been more planes from Baghdad arriving in Minsk in recent weeks.
Travelers from Iraq were reported to be taken to several hotels throughout Minsk on June 16, according to the popular Telegram channel Motolko Pomogi.
That same day, RFE/RL's Belarus Service was on hand as some 100 people deplaned on June 16 following a regularly scheduled Iraqi Airways flight to the Belarusian capital. The travelers, all male, were aided on arrival at a kiosk at the terminal by personnel from two travel agencies, Oscartur and JoodLand.
According to Oscartur's Instagram and Facebook accounts, with about 300 and 3,800 subscribers respectively, the agency organizes tours from Iraq to Belarus.
Most of the 28 posts on the Instagram account come from 2017. Contact information is meager, with only a Russian e-mail address and a Belarusian mobile phone number offered.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service contacted Oscartur by phone for comment and was told "Don't call here again!" in an expletive-ridden response.
Joodland has a bigger social media footprint and offices in Baghdad. It says it organizes tours to a wider array of countries, including Russia.
Economic ties between Iraq and Belarus are not extensive, with bilateral trade so low the numbers are not included in the Belarusian state statistics agency's annual figures.
Iraqi Airways has been flying from Baghdad to Minsk since 2017, according to the state-run news agency Belta, with flights now operating on Mondays and Fridays.
On April 26, Minsk National Airport said that the airline Fly Baghdad would also be serving Minsk, with Boeing 737-800 flights between the two capitals on Mondays and Thursdays.
Fly Baghdad's website indicates that it flies to five freight countries: Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Belarus.
Many of the migrants who have been stopped by Lithuanian border guards claim they have no documents, according to Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavicius. "They say they are, mostly, from Iraq," as well as Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan, he told RFE/RL.
"The main route they use is Baghdad to Minsk. A plane ticket only costs $400. Some are also arriving from Istanbul," Abramavicius said. He said Vilnius has sent an official request for assistance and information to the Iraqi Embassy in Warsaw, as Iraq has no diplomatic mission in Lithuania, but had not received a response.
Lithuanian authorities say they suspect it is part of a coordinated campaign orchestrated by Lukashenka and modeled on what they assert was a recent Russian strategy.
Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas has compared the current situation in his country to 2015-16, when suspicions arose that Russia was directing refugees from Central Asia to Finland and Norway by the so-called "Arctic road."
"Dozens of illegal immigrants are currently pouring into Lithuania from Belarus. They claim they are coming from such counties as Iraq, Iran, Syria. Belarus is using hybrid means to give this asymmetrical response to the European Union sanctions," Anusauskas told a virtual meeting of defense ministers from the Northern Group -- an informal grouping of countries on the Baltic and North seas, on June 9.
"We saw a similar scenario in Finland and Norway in 2015-2016 when Russia attempted to destabilize the EU. Belarus is repeating it. The method and principles are the same," he said.
A day after a June 13 cabinet meeting, Lithuanian Interior Minister Bilotaite said the government had "agreed on joint coordinated action and mutual support, and also the assessment of our institutions' existing capabilities.
"With that in mind, and also planned assistance from international partners, there's no need yet to declare a state of emergency," she said in a comment sent to BNS.
Landsbergis, the foreign minister, said on June 17 that he would seek a meeting with counterparts from Iraq and Turkey later in June, when Italy hosts a ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat Islamic State.
Landsbergis said that Lithuania wanted to discuss with Turkey and Iraq the possibility that they could beef up security checks of passengers departing for Belarus and repatriate undocumented migrants who end up in Lithuania.