By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) – Lithuania began building a 550-km (320-mile) razor wire barrier on its border with Belarus on Friday after accusing Belarusian authorities of flying in migrants from abroad to send illegally into the European Union.
The government said the military-style wire coil would cost 4.9 million euros ($5.81 million) to put up and run along most of the frontier, which passes over sparsely populated areas and large stretches of forest and marsh.
At a later date the barrier will be reinforced with a two meter (6.5 ft) high border fence topped by razor wire, costing an additional 41 million euros, the interior ministry said.
Hundreds of migrants have crossed from Belarus in recent days, most of them Iraqi citizens, Lithuania has said.
Belarus in May decided to allow migrants to enter Lithuania in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the bloc after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land on its soil and arrested a dissident blogger who was on board.
“If someone thinks we will close our border with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and will become a holding site for those running from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunis and further down Africa – if someone thinks so, he is misguided, to say the least,” Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday.
Belarus is guarding the border now only as much as it is “profitable” to it, and as much as it can financially, the president said.
Lithuania responded on Wednesday by announcing it would put up the frontier barrier and deploy troops to prevent migrants crossing illegally into its territory.
In a related move, Lithuania’s parliament will meet on Tuesday to urgently pass legislation streamlining asylum application reviews, including shortening their initial review to no more than 10 days, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said.
All people who crossed the border illegally would be kept locked up, the draft law says, meaning an end to occasional short trips outside detention that are currently permitted.
Just over 1,500 people crossed the frontier illegally from Belarus this year, with 900 of them coming over in the first nine days of July.
The first stretch of the new barrier, to be completed on Friday, will run 500 meters (1,640 feet) in length and measure 1.8 meters (six feet) in height, the army defense chief’s spokeswoman Ruta Montvile told Reuters.
Simonyte told the national broadcaster she did not expect the migrant flow from Belarus to subside on its own.
“As the Belarus regime is making money from these people for visa charges and, I think, gets other income from them as well – it would be difficult to expect any positive trend without additional means of impact”, she said.
Simonyte said on Wednesday Belarus had been offering migrants flights to Minsk, citing documents found on at least one migrant who had reached Lithuania. She said the main airport from where people flew into Belarus was Baghdad, and her foreign minister said people also came Turkey.
The Lithuanian-Belarus border is 679-km (420-mile) long. About 78 km (48 miles) was fenced in preceding years, and about 258 km (160 miles) are monitored electronically, according to the interior ministry.
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(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)