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More Ukrainian children from Russia-held regions arrive in Belarus despite outrage

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo prior to a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Nov. 23.
Konstantin Zavrazhin
/
Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo prior to a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Nov. 23.

TALLINN, Estonia — Belarus' authoritarian president on Thursday attended a government-organized meeting with children brought from Russia-controlled areas of Ukraine, openly defying an international outrage over his country's involvement in Moscow's deportation of Ukrainian children.

Speaking at the event marking the arrival of a new group of Ukrainian children ahead of the New Year holiday, President Alexander Lukashenko vowed to "embrace these children, bring them to our home, keep them warm and make their childhood happier."

Belarusian officials did not say how many Ukrainian children were brought into the country.

A recent study by Yale University has found that more than 2,400 Ukrainian children aged 6-17 have been brought to Belarus from four Ukrainian regions that have been partially occupied by Russian forces. The Belarusian opposition has urged the International Criminal Court to hold Lukashenko and his officials accountable for their involvement in the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children.

Pavel Latushka, a former Belarusian culture minister turned opposition activist who has presented the ICC with evidence of Lukashenko's alleged involvement in the unlawful deportation of the children, said the arrival of a new group from Russia-occupied territories "underlines the need for the ICC to investigate those crimes."

"Lukashenko, his family members and associates together with the Kremlin have organized a system of transfer of Ukrainian children, including orphans, from the occupied territories to Belarus, and this channel is still working," Latushka told The Associated Press.

In March, the ICC issued arrest warrants for both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children's rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, accusing them of the war crimes of unlawful deportation of children and unlawful transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia. Moscow has rejected the allegations.

Ukraine's human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said in televised remarks Thursday that the transfer of thousands of Ukrainian children to Belarus helped Moscow cover up the information about the unlawful deportation of children.

Earlier this month, the International Red Cross suspended the organization's Belarusian chapter after its chief, Dzmitry Shautsou, stirred international outrage for boasting that it was actively ferrying Ukrainian children from Russian-controlled areas to Belarus.

Shautsou called the move "absolutely politicized," claiming that Ukrainian children who visited Belarus for "health improvement" returned home safely.

Belarus has been Moscow's closest ally since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, when Lukashenko allowed the Kremlin to use his country's territory to invade Ukraine. Russia has also deployed some of its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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The Associated Press