Latvia to shut one of two Belarus border crossings to stop illegal migrants

Latvian prime minister candidate Evika Silina addresses the parliament before its vote for a new government in Riga, Latvia, September 15, 2023. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

RIGA (Reuters) -Latvia's government decided on Tuesday to close one of its two border crossing points with Belarus as the prime minister accused Minsk of again using illegal migrants as a "hybrid threat" to undermine the Baltic state's security.

In 2021, Latvia, Poland and Lithuania faced an immigration crisis when thousands of people, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, began crossing from Belarus.

The three countries, all members of NATO and the European Union, eventually resorted to pushing the migrants back, a policy that remains in place.

Fifty officers now working at the Silene border station will be redeployed to guard the actual border, in what Latvia's border guard chief has described as "the most tense situation since 2021" due to an influx of migrants from Belarus.

Guards have turned back 894 people attempting to cross the border in the last six days, taking September's total to 1,773, Latvian news wire LETA reported.

"Border tensions are increasing, and Belarus is engaging more and more in such a hybrid threat, that we have an increasing number of illegal travellers", Latvian Prime Minister Evika Silina told reporters.

The border crossing point has been closed to "send signals internationally", she added.

However, Belarus Border Guard said on its website on Tuesday that the Silene crossing point remained open and that Latvia had not informed it of any changes.

Poland and Lithuania have fenced their borders with Belarus and the new Latvian government has pledged to finish its own fence by the end of the year.

Belarus is a close ally of Russia. It allowed Russian armed forces to use its territory as a staging post to invade Ukraine, Belarus' southern neighbour, in early 2022. In May this year, Russia deployed tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas and Janis LaizansEditing by Terje Solsvik and Gareth Jones)

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