Soviet OMON assaults on Lithuanian border posts
|Assaults on border posts|
|Part of the Singing Revolution and January Events (Lithuania)|
|Casualties and losses|
Several Soviet OMON assaults on Lithuanian border posts occurred in 1991, after Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990. As a Soviet republic, the Lithuanian SSR did not have a state border with customs or checkpoints. The newly declared Republic of Lithuania began establishing the State Border Guard Service, which also became a symbol of its striving for independence. The Soviet government viewed the customs posts as illegal and sent the OMON (Special Purpose Police Unit) troops against the posts, especially those along the eastern border with Belarus. The unarmed custom officers and policemen were harassed, beaten or killed, their cars were stolen or bombed, the posts were burned down or wrecked, and work of the checkpoints was otherwise disrupted. Two of the incidents resulted in the deaths of eight Lithuanian citizens. In total, about 60 officers were attacked and injured, and 23 border posts were burned or destroyed.
The first incident occurred on December 17, 1990 in Eišiškės. Shift leader Petras Pumputis was beaten, lost consciousness, and was taken to a hospital with cerebral hemorrhage. The first organized attacks were organized following the events of January 11–13, 1991 in Vilnius when 14 civilians were killed near the Vilnius TV Tower. Soviet troops attacked and burned border posts in Medininkai and Lavoriškės on January 27. On March 21, OMON troops fired at a border guard bus returning from Vilnius. Three Lithuanian guards were injured.
In mid-May 1991, various incidents were reported almost daily. On May 18, Belarusian police captain A. Fiyaz (A. Фиязь) fired at a Lithuanian post in Šalčininkai with a TT pistol; Fiyaz was killed when a Lithuanian officer returned fire with a hunting rifle. Fearing retaliation, the Lithuanian officers were ordered to leave their posts. Officer Gintaras Žagunis did not leave his station in Krakūnai and was killed on May 19. Žagunis was given a public funeral in the Antakalnis Cemetery. The same night two other posts were burned down. On May 23, OMON troops from Riga assaulted border posts on the Lithuanian–Latvian border in Vegeriai, Mažeikiai, Germaniškis, Saločiai, Smėlynė. Five Latvian posts were also attacked. The attack on Smėlynė was filmed by Alexander Nevzorov and later shown on Leningrad TV.
Following these attacks Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius officially complained to Boris Pugo, Soviet Minister of Internal Affairs in charge of OMON troops. Moscow denied responsibility for the attacks and claimed that the OMON troops acted without their approval. Mikhail Gorbachev disclaimed any knowledge of the attacks and ordered Pugo to investigate. However, on May 24 and 25 five more posts were assaulted. Lithuania appealed to western countries asking to protest the actions of the Soviet government. Moscow continued to deny responsibility, but admitted that the actions of OMON troops were criminal. Despite promises to intervene, the attacks continued through mid-June. On June 28, Moscow took the first concrete action to discipline OMON – its leaders were called to explain themselves and were reassigned.
The most serious attack occurred when OMON troops from Riga attacked the Lithuanian customs post in Medininkai on the Vilnius–Minsk highway on July 31, 1991. It is thought that the attack took place around 4 am because a watch belonging to one of the victims stopped at this hour. Seven officers were shot and killed: Mindaugas Balavakas and Algimantas Juozakas (officers of the Special Division ARAS), Juozas Janonis and Algirdas Kazlauskas (officers of the highway police), Antanas Musteikis, Stanislovas Orlavičius and Ričardas Rabavičius (customs officers). Rabavičius died on August 2 in hospital. The only survivor, customs officer Tomas Šernas, suffered severe brain damage and became disabled. The ARAS officers were supposed to provide protection to the post and were armed. However, their weapons were missing from the scene and there were no signs of returned fire. The Lithuanian officers were forced to lie down on the ground and then shot in the head, execution style. Those killed were buried in the Antakalnis Cemetery. The victims were awarded the Cross of Vytis (September 6, 1991) and the Medal of the 13th of January (January 9, 1992).
The incident occurred during President George H. W. Bush's two-day visit in Moscow. Bush specifically addressed the incident in one of the press conferences, but downplayed its importance in the Lithuanian struggle for international recognition and shielded Gorbachev from responsibility. It was speculated that the assailants wanted to embarrass Gorbachev showcasing his inability to control the situation in the dissolving Soviet Union. The attack might have been a response to a treaty between Lithuania and Boris Yeltsin, newly elected President of Russian SFSR. The treaty established formal diplomatic relations and addressed economic and cultural issues between Lithuania and Russia; it was seen as an important step towards recognition of Lithuania's independence. Another version claims that the guards discovered a large smuggling operation.
Investigation and trials
The attacks stopped after the executions in Medininkai. Only during the August Coup in Moscow, the post in Kybartai was attacked on August 22, 1991. After the coup failed, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Members of OMON dispersed throughout the former union, many of them becoming citizens of Russia. The Lithuanian government attempts to investigate the attacks and prosecute the suspects, but the efforts are hindered by complex extradition requests. In December 1991, the Lithuanians presented to Russia a list of more than 20 people wanted for their involvement in January Events and Medininkai incident. However, the Lithuanians were refused even requests to question witnesses.
In December 2006, the Lithuanian prosecutors issued the European Arrest Warrant for arrest of Latvian citizen Konstantin Nikulin, a suspect in the Medininkai killings. He was arrested by Latvian police on November 28, 2007. In 2004, Nikulin was tried and received 2.5 years of suspended sentence for his involvement in the January 1991 events in Latvia. After the trial Nikulin became a key witness to an unrelated murder and changed his surname to Konstantin Mikhailov (Konstantinas Michailovas) as part of a witness protection program. On January 28, 2008, the Supreme Court of Latvia decided to extradite Mikhailov to Lithuania. In Lithuania he was jailed in the Lukiškės Prison awaiting the trial. The case has some 220 witnesses and volumes of written material. The statute of limitations for murder is 20 years; thus the expiration date would be July 2011. On May 11, 2011, Mikhailov was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mikhailov appealed the decision claiming innocence while Lithuanian prosecutors appealed the decision hoping to convict Mikhailov of crimes against humanity. As of June 2013, the appeals are ongoing.
Other suspects in the case, namely commander Czeslaw Mlynnik (Česlavas Mlinykas), Alexander Ryzhov (Aleksandras Ryžovas), and Andrei Laktionov (Andrejus Laktionovas), are citizens of Russia and have not been extradited. In 2009, Ryzhov was tried for organized crime and armed robbery in Saint Petersburg and received a 15-year sentence in June 2011. In June 2013, the Lithuanians completed pre-trial procedures in absentia for a trial of the three men for crimes against humanity. Lithuania has issued the European Arrest Warrants for the three men. Another suspect, Igor Gorban, was identified by the only survivor Tomas Šernas during Gorban's 2004 trial in Riga. However, Gorban was not charged due to lack of evidence.
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