VILNIUS (Reuters) - Lithuania has blocked 5.8 million euros (£5.3 million) in payments to Belarus for an EU-funded cross-border development programme, fearing the money could be misused, the Lithuanian government said on Wednesday.
The European Union has condemned police crackdowns on protesters in Belarus since a disputed Aug. 9 election, and last week imposed travel bans and asset freezes on dozens of Belarusian officials.
Neighbouring Lithuania has been one of the strongest backers of a strong EU stance against President Alexander Lukashenko’s attempts to stifle opposition and is hosting his main opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled there after the vote.
Lithuanian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Bozena Zaborovska told Reuters that payments for the cross-border assistance programme that Vilnius oversees were halted immediately after the post-election crackdowns began, out of fear that the money would be misused by Lukashenko’s government.
“All payments were ceased until we receive clarification from the European Commission on the apparent risks,” she said.
The funds have not been redirected for other purposes and remain shelved pending the clarification, she added.
The EU Observer newspaper reported on Tuesday that Belarus had purchased 15 surveillance drones using EU money, prompting alarm they could be used against pro-democracy demonstrators.
Lithuanian police chief Renatas Pozela told reporters funds for the drones were sent to Belarus in the first half of 2020.
The funding programme aims to develop regions on both sides of the border between Belarus and EU members Lithuania and Latvia. The EU is due to contribute 74 million euros, with the funds for Belarus channelled through neighbouring EU countries.
Under initial plans, the EU was due to spend a total of 18.4 million euros on the programme in 2020, 10.7 million euros in 2021, and 3.5 million in 2022-2024.
Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Johan Ahlander and Mark Heinrich
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