Belarus closed its border with Lithuania on Thursday afternoon, citing safety requirements to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Lithuania's Interior Ministry confirmed to BNS.
“We have learned from the representatives of the State Border Guard Service that light transport is not allowed to cross the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, citing Covid,” Božena Zaborovska-Zdanovič, a spokeswoman for the interior minister, told BNS.
Lithuania's officials are trying to reach out to the Belarusian side to get more information on the situation, she added.
Belarus has been rocked by protests for more than two months against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. The protesters claim he rigged the election in August and call for his resignation.
Belarusian citizens not allowed into the country
Rustamas Liubajevas, the chief of Lithuania's border guard service (VSAT), told BNS that freight transport was still allowed to cross the border.
“This situation came as a surprise for us really. It changed as of 16:00 when Belarusian citizens with Lithuanian residence permits were not allowed into the territory of the Republic of Belarus. There was also a case when Belarusian citizens with Estonian residence permits were not allowed to enter either,” Liubajevas said.
“Since then, they do not allow passengers in. Freight transport is still allowed to go,” he added.
Since travel across the Lithuanian–Belarusian border has been restricted due to the coronavirus, passenger traffic has not been intense, according to Liubajevas, and the new measures seem excessive.
Moreover, it is not clear whether the restrictions apply to Belarusian citizens only, or to Lithuanians as well, he said.
“They will probably ban citizens of other countries to come and will close the border for passengers completely,” he said.
Belarusian media have reported that the borders have also been closed with Poland, Ukraine and Latvia.
“Unfortunately, the border has in fact been closed. It came as a surprise for many, including ourselves. Nobody expected that. Don't worry, it’s definitely not a state of war. Covid-19 is the reason,” an officer from the Grodno border checkpoint told the Onliner news website.
Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius said the government in Vilnius was not informed about the move.
“From the unofficial information that I have, the border is closed and the stated reason [...] is the pandemic situation. It involves Lithuania, Poland, I've heard that perhaps also Ukraine,” Linkevičius told LRT RADIO. “Since we didn't receive any warning via diplomatic channels, we have to go by the information that we have.”
Linkevičius expressed some doubt whether the coronavirus was the main reason for Minsk's decision.
“We know the situation in that country, we know what our relations have been and I wouldn't want to make any conclusions. I don't believe that the pandemic situation is the main reason,” he said.
According to the information available to the Foreign Ministry, Belarusian border guards are not letting through passenger cars. Both Lithuanians and Belarusian citizens who have residency in other countries are declined entry.
“So far, we can conclude that this [the closing of border] is about not letting people in. For what reason – everyone can take their guess,” Linkevičius commented.
Lithuania is not planning to respond with similar measures until there is an official notice from Minsk, he said.
Belarus confirms travel restrictions
The Belarusian government confirmed on Thursday night it had introduced restrictions for arrivals from Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine through land border crossing points.
The country's State Border Committee says it was done due to the epidemiological situation.
“In view of the existing epidemiological situation in neighbouring countries, Belarus is restricting entry into its territory via land-based crossing points for certain categories of individuals from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine,” the committee said in a statement, cited by Interfax.
It also said the personnel of diplomatic missions and consulates traveling on diplomatic or service passports were exempt from the restrictions. The ban does not apply to drivers of vehicles certified for international road haulage, members of train and locomotive crews working in international rail services.