Belarus’s authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka says he ordered the full closure of the border with Ukraine, citing security reasons, and claimed the authorities had exposed Western-linked "terrorist" sleeper cells, as his regime faces growing international pressure over its brutal crackdown on dissent in the wake of last year’s disputed presidential election.
Lukashenka’s allegations, which he did not substantiate with any evidence, come as his regime was hit by additional Western sanctions following last month's forced landing of a European passenger plane in Minsk and the arrest of an opposition blogger who was on board.
Speaking at an event marking 30 years of independence of post-Soviet Belarus, Lukashenka announced he had ordered officials to seal the country's border with pro-Western Ukraine to prevent a "huge amount" of weapons coming into Belarus.
In remarks released by his office, Lukashenka also alleged that "terrorist sleeper cells" linked to Germany, Lithuania, the United States, Poland, and Ukraine had been exposed in Belarus, and claimed that their goal was “forcible regime change.”
A Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Ukraine has not interfered in its neighbor's internal affairs nor was it planning to do so.
"The Ukrainian side has not received official notification from Belarus on the border closure. It would primarily be the Belarusian people who would suffer from such a step," Oleh Nikolaenko said.
A senior U.S. administration official told Reuters it appeared that Lukashenka's regime "is once again seeking to deflect attention away from its campaign of repression against its people."
Washington “will continue to stand with the Belarusian people and hold the regime accountable," the official added.
He said the alleged members of the cells tried to target a communication facility for the Russian Navy near the Belarusian town of Vileyka, adding that he discussed the incident with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenka’s main international backer, "in the most serious manner."
Earlier on July 2, Lithuanian authorities said migrants continue to pour into the Baltic state across its border with Belarus, a situation it said Minsk was purposely organizing in retaliation for the West's sanctions.
The Lithuanian State Border Security Service said in a statement that 150 immigrants had been apprehended while trying to illegally cross the Belarusian-Lithuanian border in the previous 24 hours, almost twice the number detained along the border for all of 2020.
The total number of detained illegal immigrants, mainly from Iraq, who illegally entered Lithuania from Belarus since January now stands at 822, the statement added.
Vilnius contends that 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.
Lithuania 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, setting off unprecedented protests.
The opposition says that the election was rigged, and the West has refused to recognize the official results of the vote and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader.
The Baltic state has offered refuge to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who supporters say was the real winner of the vote, and to many others targeted in Lukashenka's violent crackdown on pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians.
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.
Lithuania has requested aid from the EU's border guard service, Frontex, due to the influx of migrants.
A first Frontex team of six guards began working in Lithuania on July 2, the AFP news agency reported, adding that the number of guards deployed on the border with Belarus is expected to increase to 30 later this month.