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Lithuania widens curbs on Kaliningrad trade despite Russian warning

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FILE PHOTO: Freight trains to and from Russian enclave Kaliningrad at border railway station in Kybartai

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) -Lithuania on Monday expanded restrictions on trade through its territory to Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, as more European Union sanctions against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine took effect.

Additional goods barred from Monday morning include concrete, wood, alcohol and alcohol-based industrial chemicals, a spokesperson for Lithuanian customs said.

Lithuanian Railways estimated that the restrictions would apply to the equivalent of about 15% of the 3.7 million tonnes of cargo it transported from Russia to Kaliningrad in the first half of 2022. That includes expanding a ban on ferrous metals which began last month.

Kaliningrad, a Baltic port and environs home to around 1 million people, was annexed by the Soviet Union from Germany after World War Two and is connected to the rest of Russia only through EU territory, mainly rail via Belarus through Lithuania.

Moscow says the ban on overland transit of some goods amounts to an illegal blockade; Lithuania says it has no choice but to enforce sanctions imposed by Brussels.

Russia warned Lithuania and the European Union on Friday that it could adopt "harsh measures" against them if the transit of some goods to and from Kaliningrad did not resume "within the coming days".

On Monday, the Kaliningrad regional governor proposed a ban on movement of goods between Russia and the three EU Baltic member states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, apart from transit to Kaliningrad. That could divert Russian freight from their ports.

"This will provide activities to (our) maritime carriers and give work to Kaliningrad ports, which have been hit hard by the EU restrictions," Governor Anton Alikhanov said on Telegram.

PUTIN-LUKASHENKO PHONE CALL

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally, discussed a possible response to Lithuania's actions during a phone call, their Telegram accounts said.

The presidents discussed "certain possible joint steps...in connection with the illegal restrictions imposed by Lithuania on the transit of goods to the Kaliningrad region", the Kremlin said in a short statement on Telegram.

The EU trade restrictions have been upgraded as governments, markets and companies worry Russia could choose to extend the shut-off of the biggest single pipeline carrying Russian gas to Germany beyond a planned 10-day maintenance period.

The dispute over the isolation of Kaliningrad is testing Europe's resolve to enforce sanctions.

EU officials, with Germany's backing, sought a compromise to resolve the stand-off in late June. However sources told Reuters that Lithuania had reservations about making what could be seen as a concession to the Kremlin.

Goods that fall within humanitarian or essential categories, such as food, are exempted from the sanctions. Passenger traffic is not banned and Kaliningrad can still be reached by air or sea.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, editing by Anna Ringstrom and Mark Heinrich)

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