Russian threat sees rebirth of Lithuania paramilitary group

In thick pine forests hidden in the remote wilderness of eastern Lithuania, young professionals are ditching their suits and ties for camouflage gear, and swapping iPads for rifles.

Pabrade: In thick pine forests hidden in the remote wilderness of eastern Lithuania, young professionals are ditching their suits and ties for camouflage gear, and swapping iPads for rifles.

These weekend warriors also proudly wear bracelets with emblems of green fir trees on their wrists, symbols of their small Baltic country`s wartime resistance against the Soviet Union, which occupied it in 1940.

Now, Russia`s takeover of Crimea and increasing signs of its involvement in Ukraine`s east, coupled with sabre rattling in its Kaliningrad exclave bordering Lithuania, are sparking a sharp rise in paramilitary recruits here.

Like others in the region, Lithuania is calling on NATO to put permanent boots on the ground in the Baltics to ward off any potential threat from their Soviet-era master. 

But while they await a decision that could come at a key two-day alliance summit starting Thursday in Wales, Lithuanian civilians are lacing up their own combat boots. 

Students, businessmen, civil servants, journalists and even politicians are among the hundreds who have joined the government-sponsored Lithuania Riflemen`s Union, a group first set up in 1919 but banned in 1940 under Soviet rule. 

"The Vilnius unit has tripled in size since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine," says Mindaugas Balciauskas, unit commander of the group which boasts about 7,000 members in the nation of three million, a number almost on par with its 7,000 military personnel and 4,200 reservists.President Dalia Grybauskaite, a karate black belt dubbed Lithuania`s `Iron Lady` for her tough stance on Russia, has also sworn to "take up arms" herself in the unlikely case Moscow would attack this 2004 NATO and EU member of three million.

"Being in a paramilitary unit will give me privileged access to information and make me better prepared than those who don`t join," Arturas Bortkevicius, a 37-year-old finance specialist, told AFP, adding that he wants to learn the skills he needs to defend his country and family.

Members spend weekends on manoeuvres deep in the woods or at a military training range in Pabrade, north of the capital Vilnius.

Liberal MP Remigijus Simasius says that while his place "would be in parliament" given a crisis, he joined the riflemen in the wake of Russia`s Crimea land grab in the hope of encouraging others to follow suit.

Even some Lithuanians with Russian roots have joined up amid the Ukraine crisis.

"I`m a Lithuanian citizen of Russian origin. I am who I am, and I am Lithuanian patriot," photographer Vladimiras Ivanovas, 40, who also joined up, told AFP.The Rifleman`s Union "has left an indelible mark on the history of Lithuania," says historian Arvydas Anusauskas.

It was created after World War I in 1919 during a series of "Wars of Independence" fought by Lithuanians in 1918-1920 against Russian Bolsheviks, mixed Russian and German forces and Poles.

Aside from Lithuanians, from 1919-1940 research shows its members also included Russian, Poles, Jews and even Chinese, reflecting the ethnic complexity of and tensions in the region.

Its reputation is however tainted by allegations that certain members were involved in a series of Nazi massacres between 1940-44 that claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000-100,000 Jews, Poles and Russians in Panierai, a suburb skirting the capital Vilnius. 

The Riflemen`s Union was banned in 1940 by the Soviet Union when the Red Army swept in from the east to occupy Lithuania during World War II, but members fought a guerilla war against the Soviets until the early 1950s.

Its revival in 1989 came as the Soviet bloc began to crumble and now its large new crop of members say they are willing to fight again should their country come under attack.

"If there will be a lot of riflemen, then maybe, any potential aggressor will think twice about whether it`s worth it to wade in here," manager Giedrius Sakalauskas, 47, told AFP, adding that "Russia`s belligerence" motivated him to join the organisation.

Asked whether he`s willing to go into the trenches to fight in a guerrilla war against any potential aggressor, he replies: "of course", without a shadow of doubt. 

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