VILNIUS (Reuters) - It seemed a good idea at the time - arm Lithuania’s police with AK-47s routinely as extra security against any militant plots following the Paris attacks.
But, in just days, the decision had led to the accidental shooting of a homeless man, a manhunt for a suspected drug addict who stole one of the weapons from a police car and the resignation of the interior minister accused of falling asleep during the search operation.
“What happened in Vilnius yesterday was deplorable,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on Friday.
Grybauskaite’s statement came after a five-hour manhunt in Vilnius on Thursday for a handcuffed man who made off with a loaded AK-47 after being left unguarded in a police car.
The man, described as a drug addict by police and wanted for misdemeanors, avoided hundreds of police officers who combed the city, backed by a helicopter and elite troops.
Police closed off streets, checked cars and laid siege to an abandoned building before finding it was empty. Residents were warned to stay inside and keep away from the windows.
The man was arrested after five hours, in his own apartment, hiding in a shower. He had dumped the weapon in another derelict house.
“The man escaped by walking. And then he boarded public transport – a bus,” Lithuanian police chief Linas Pernavas who made the decision last Saturday, after the attacks in Paris, to issue the weapons to police on routine patrol.
“Passengers didn’t see the gun because he concealed it,” he said.
In a separate accident on Saturday, when police were first handed the AK-47s, a homeless man was shot in the leg by a policeman in what Vilnius police chief Kestutis Lancinskas described as “an accidental shooting”.
The other principal casualty was Interior Minister Saulius Skvernelis who resigned on Friday after criticism from Grybauskaite and parliament speaker Loreta Grauziniene.
Grauziniene told a news conference she had called Skvernelis during the manhunt and the minister had told her he had been sleeping. The minister has been quoted widely in local media denying he was woken up by the speaker’s call.
Pernavas said police will now review the list of officers allowed to carry AK-47s.
Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Richard Balmforth