WARSAW – Hundreds of desperate migrants were trapped in freezing weather on the border between Belarus and EU and NATO member Poland on Tuesday, with Warsaw accusing the regime in Minsk of using them to threaten European security.
Western critics have for months said Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko is luring migrants from the Middle East to his country to send them across the border, in retaliation for European sanctions.
Belarus denies the claim and accuses Poland of violating human rights by refusing to allow the migrants in.
The tense situation has raised fears of a confrontation on the border, where armed troops from both countries are deployed.
A defiant Lukashenko said he was not looking for an armed confrontation but also would not back down.
“We are not seeking a fight… I am not a madman, I understand perfectly well where it can lead,” Lukashenko said in an interview released by state news agency Belta.
“But we will not kneel.”
The crisis came to a head on Monday when hundreds of migrants marched to the border in a bid to cross but were blocked by rows of Polish police, soldiers and border guards behind barbed wire.
Poland and Belarus said Tuesday that between 3,000 to 4,000 migrants were now in an improvised camp on the border, near the Polish village of Kuznica.
Journalists have been blocked from the area, but videos released by Belarusian and Polish authorities showed the migrants massed along the razor-wire, huddling by fires and in tents as temperatures hovered around freezing.
– ‘Hybrid attack’ –
Poland said Belarus was using the migrants as a weapon, insisting it would not open its border.
“Sealing the Polish border is our national interest. But today the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter.
“This hybrid attack of Lukashenko’s regime is aimed at all of us. We will not be intimidated and will defend peace in Europe with our partners from NATO and EU.”
But Belarus said Warsaw’s treatment of the migrants would be a “litmus test” of its commitment to international norms and cautioned against any “provocations”.
“We would like to warn the Polish side in advance against any provocations directed against the Republic of Belarus to justify illegal use of force against disadvantaged, unarmed people, among whom there are many children and women,” the foreign ministry in Minsk said in a statement.
– EU urges new sanctions –
The Belarusian defence ministry said Poland had deployed 10,000 military personnel to the border without giving prior warning to Belarusian authorities, in what it said was a violation of joint security agreements.
Poland’s defence ministry tweeted video footage showing what it said appeared to be a “large group of Belarusian officers” approaching the vicinity of the migrant camp.
The European Union called for new sanctions on Belarus, on top of those already applied over Lukashenko’s heavy crackdown on the opposition after a disputed election last year.
EU diplomats in Brussels told AFP the bloc was already working on moves to expand existing sanctions to include those involved in trafficking migrants, including potentially airlines and travel agencies.
The EU said it was also pushing more than a dozen countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa, to prevent their nationals leaving for Belarus.
“This is part of the inhuman and really gangster style approach of the Lukashenko regime,” a European Commission spokesman, Peter Stano, told journalists.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov blamed Western military “adventures” in the Middle East for prompting migrants to flee the region in the first place.
“The main responsibility for resolving the crisis with migrants lies of course with those who created the conditions,” Lavrov told reporters.
Moscow is Belarus’s main international backer and the Kremlin said Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin had “exchanged opinions on the situation with refugees” in a phone call with Lukashenko.
Some migrants who made it into Poland told AFP last month that they had been trapped in the woods for a week, with Belarus refusing to allow them to return to Minsk and fly home, while Poland would not let them cross to make asylum claims.
The Belarusian border guard service said Tuesday that the migrants in the camp were mostly Kurds, that their physical and mental condition was “extremely poor” and they lacked water, food and the means to wash themselves.
“The situation is aggravated by the large number of pregnant women and infants among the refugees, who must spend the night on the ground in negative temperatures,” it said.