Lithuania arrests Russian over alleged 1991 war crimes

14th March 2014, Comments 0 comments

Lithuania has arrested a former Soviet army officer suspected of committing war crimes during a bloody 1991 crackdown on the Baltic state's independence drive, prosecutors said Friday.

The 45-year-old Russian, Yuri Mel, was arrested Wednesday at a checkpoint on the border with Russia's exclave of Kaliningrad, and a Vilnius court Friday remanded him in custody for two months.

"He admits taking part in the (1991) events but denies killing people," a spokeswoman for the prosecutors, Elena Martinoniene, told AFP.

Mel, a Kaliningrad citizen, faces life behind bars if convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, she added.

Fourteen civilians died and hundreds were injured when Soviet forces attacked the Vilnius television tower on January 13, 1991, as part of failed attempts to smother the independence movement.

In 1990, after five decades of Kremlin rule, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to secede, setting off a wave that led to the collapse of the entire bloc by December 1991.

Six Lithuanian Soviet-era officials were convicted and jailed in the 1990s over the crackdown, but Vilnius has been unable to try other suspects believed to be in Russia and Belarus.

Vilnius prosecutors said 79 Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian nationals are wanted over war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with the 1991 crackdown.

In 2011, Lithuania blasted fellow European Union member Austria over its speedy release of Russian Mikhail Golovatov, who led a Soviet troops unit in Vilnius in 1991.

Ties between Lithuania, a nation of three million, and Russia have been rocky since independence, notably after Vilnius joined the EU and NATO in 2004.

Lithuania and fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia have repeatedly voiced their concern at the Russian military build-up near their border -- and the escalating crisis in Crimea has added to that unease.

© 2014 AFP

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