Lithuania has told its border staff to use force if necessary to turn away migrants coming into the country from Belarus.
Hundreds arrived on Sunday, breaking the daily record. In total 4,026 migrants, most of them from Iraq, crossed into Belarus this year.
Vilnius has pointed the finger at Minsk for allegedly orchestrating the influx in retaliation to its reaction over the Ryanair flight diversion.
Lithuania's interior ministry distributed video footage shot from a helicopter as proof that large groups of immigrants were being escorted to the European Union border by vehicles belonging to Belarus’ border guard authority.
It said on Tuesday that three large migrant groups were stopped in thick woods in the border area between the two countries, and Lithuanian border guards commanded them to return back to Belarus.
"First of all, (Lithuanian border) officers tell them (migrants) that they are lost; that they have arrived in the beautiful country of Belarus and got the wrong way while enjoying its nature but now they must continue the tourist track back into that country,” vice interior minister Arnoldas Abramavicius told reporters.
If that method proved unsuccessful, he said Lithuania has reserved the right to use force to keep migrants away but “use of force depends on circumstances”.
“It can not be ruled out that (border guard) officers will face aggression” from migrants, Abramavicius said, adding the measures were necessary as crossing state border in such a way is an illegal action. “Lithuania can not accept this influx that grows day by day”.
Lithuania officials estimate that more than 10,000 more migrants might try to arrive this year as the number of direct flights from Iraq to Minsk tripled in August and the country has no physical barriers for its almost 679-kilometre long border with Belarus.
Lithuania accuses Lukashenko
On Monday, EU officials pledged millions of euros to help Lithuania tackle its migrant crisis.
Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner of Home Affairs, arrived in Lithuania on Sunday, a day on which a record 287 illegal migrants arrivals were recorded — more than three times as many as in all of last year.
“This is a provocation of the Lukashenko regime. We must show that there is no free access to EU territory," Johansson said.
Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organising the illicit border crossings as an act of retaliation by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Since he was announced as the winner in an August 2020 presidential vote that the West denounced as rigged, he has cracked down on opposition protests in his country and his main election challenger fled to Lithuania.
"Lithuania, the EU, the Schengen states must prevent illegal access to this area. That is why we, the whole EU, support Lithuania to defend our common external border with Belarus,” Johansson told reporters.
Air traffic from Iraq on the rise
Iraqi airlines have increased flights from Baghdad to Minsk from two to four a week and are also starting flights from Basra, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Lithuania's border guard service announced on Monday that it cannot accommodate any more new immigrants and urged the government to relocate people to other facilities.
“We have managed this until now, but I must admit we have reached the limit of our possibilities,” said the director of the service Rustamas Liubajevas.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte expressed hope the European Commission will be able to handle the rapidly deteriorating situation.
“The first task is to reduce the potential of the flow itself. The biggest expectation here is for the EU to be able to use its negotiating position with the Iraqi government,” Simonyte told reporters.
Johansson promised Lithuania would not be left alone. “I will send a delegation that will spend a few days here to discuss in detail the possibility of funding a good border protection system that includes monitoring and protection against illegal migrants,” she said, adding that 20-30 million euros will be allocated to this by 2022.
Towards a border wall
Lithuania wants to build a physical barrier with Belarus, which it estimates will cost more than 100 million euros. EU funding is not usually permitted to finance the building of border barriers.
“We will eventually build it, no matter how much aid is sent by the EU. The border must be protected,” Simonyte said.
Later Monday, police used a water cannon and tear gas to disperse a crowd of immigrants who were rioting over the crowded living conditions at Rudininkai detention centre and a tent that failed in the rain. Several young Iraqis were removed from the centre for questioning, police said.
The Rudininkai military training ground, 40 kilometres outside Vilnius, was converted into one of the country's many migrant detention centres in July.