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Belarus Red Cross sparks outcry

FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speak during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the resort city of Sochi, Russia, Friday, June 9, 2023. Following an armed rebellion by a mercenary group in Russia, tensions are rising in and around neighboring Belarus, where the exiled leader of the force and some of its fighters are settling in. While authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has offered them refuge, that isn’t sitting well with the Belarusian opposition and guerrilla activists, who call Wagner fighters a threat to the country. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)


TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — The Belarus Red Cross has sparked international outrage after its chief told Belarusian state television that the organization is actively involved in bringing Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied areas to Belarus.

Both Ukraine and the Belarusian opposition have decried the transfer as unlawful deportations, and there have been calls for international war crimes charges for the authoritarian Belarus leader, similar to the charges against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The actions of the Belarus Red Cross drew stern criticism from the International Federation of Red and Red Crescent Societies.

Belarus has been Moscow’s closest ally since Russia’s invasion started in February 2022, with its leader Alexander Lukashenko allowing the Kremlin to use Belarusian territory to send troops and weapons into Ukraine. Lukashenko has also welcomed a Russian military presence in Belarus and the deployment of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons there.

Belarusian opposition figures have accused Lukashenko of facilitating the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus, allegations Minsk angrily rejected.

A report aired Wednesday by the state Belarus 1 TV channel showed Dzmitry Shautsou, the head of the Belarus Red Cross, visiting the Russian-held Ukrainian city of Lysychansk in the Luhansk region.

In the footage, he says the organization was actively involved in bringing Ukrainian children to Belarus for “health improvement” purposes. “The Belarus Red Cross has taken — and is taking, and will be taking — an active part in it,” Shautsou said.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the International Criminal Court “to issue an arrest warrant” for Shautsou, saying that he “has publicly confessed to the crime of unlawful deportation of children from occupied areas of Ukraine.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which brings together 191 national organizations, said it contacted the Belarus Red Cross to express its “grave concern” and to advise it to “stop any similar activity in the future.”

Last month, Belarusian opposition activist Pavel Latushka said he has provided the ICC with material allegedly detailing the forced transfer of 2,100 Ukrainian children from at least 15 Russia-occupied Ukrainian cities to Belarus with Lukashenko’s approval.

In May, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office announced an investigation into the forced transfers.

Belarusian authorities have confirmed hosting more than 1,000 children, aged 6-15, from Russian-held parts of Ukraine for health reasons. The first group of 350 children arrived in April, officials said, without providing further details.

Shautsou from the Belarus Red Cross said he was working with a state-backed charity foundation to make “the children forget the horrors of the war and just rest, feel that there’s an island of happiness.”

The Belarus Red Cross is the biggest humanitarian organization in Belarus and is part of the international Red Cross movement.

The Geneva-based umbrella organization — the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies — said it had learned about Shautsou’s visit to Donbas through the media. it said it referred the issue to its compliance committee, which investigates any “alleged breaches of integrity.”

“These actions risk damaging the trust of our work in supporting communities in need, whoever they are, and whichever side of the frontlines they are on,” the federation said in a statement sent to The Associated Press.

It stressed that the Belarus Red Cross chief doesn’t speak on behalf of the federation “and his statements do not represent our views.”

Latushka, who used to be a top official in Lukashenko’s government, insists that taking Ukrainian children to Belarus is illegal and violates international norms. He has called on the ICC to launch a probe as some of those “children are under the guardianship of the Ukrainian state, including orphans, children with disabilities and those whose parents were stripped of parental rights.”

“We have evidence that after being taken Belarus, some Ukrainian children ended up in Russia, which must become a subject of an international probe,” Latushka told the AP, speaking over the phone.

In March, the ICC issued warrants for both Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. Judges in The Hague said they found “reasonable grounds to believe” that the two were responsible for the war crimes of unlawful deportation of children and unlawful transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia. Moscow has angrily rejected the move.

European Parliament members on Tuesday called on the ICC “to consider a similar arrest warrant” for Lukashenkо.

Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

© 2023 Associated Press

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