TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Belarusian state media reported that 48 children from Ukraine arrived in Belarus on Tuesday from Ukrainian regions which Moscow claims it has annexed.
The group of children came from the occupied Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions. They include children from towns which were captured by the Russian army in July 2022. Those regions were illegally annexed by Moscow in December last year, but Russia doesn't have full control over them.
In photos published by the Belarus state news agency Belta, the children were pictured holding the red and green state flag of Belarus and reportedly thanked the Belarusian authorities, while being flanked by police and riot police.
The removal of the children from Ukraine was organized by a Belarusian charity, supported by President Alexander Lukashenko, which has previously organized health recuperation programs for Ukrainian children in Belarus.
“The president, despite external pressure, said this important humanitarian project should continue,” Alexei Talai, the charity's head, said in an interview with the Belarus state news agency Belta. “All the Belarusian people," he said want to help "children from dilapidated cities and towns in the new territories of Russia.”
It’s not clear if the children were orphans or were removed from their parents with or without consent since Belarusian authorities didn’t provide any details about them. Belarusian officials have previously denied allegations that Belarus has helped to illegally remove children from Ukraine.
In June, Belarusian opposition figures gave the International Criminal Court materials which they said showed more than 2,100 Ukrainian children from at least 15 Russian-occupied Ukrainian cities who were forcibly removed to Belarus with Lukashenko's approval.
Pavel Latushka, a former Belarusian culture minister, hopes the material will prompt the ICC to issue an arrest warrant for Lukashenko, as it did with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We are seeing more and more evidence relating to the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus and this will continue until international organizations react and stop Minsk,” Latushka said in an interview with The Associated Press.
In March, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Putin and Russia's children's rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova. Judges in The Hague, Netherlands, said they found “reasonable grounds to believe” the two were responsible for war crimes, including the illegal deportation and transfer of children from occupied Ukrainian regions to Russia — something an AP investigation detailed earlier this year.
Belarus has been Moscow’s closest ally since the Russian invasion began in February 2022, when Lukashenko allowed the Kremlin to send troops and weapons into Ukraine from Belarus. Russia has also deployed tactical nuclear weapons there.