Poland accused Lukashenko of trying to orchestrate a crisis on the European Union’s eastern border by sending migrants to the border in retaliation for sweeping sanctions imposed on Minsk by the bloc and other Western powers in June. Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied these claims, accusing the West of crossing dangerous, sometimes deadly, borders and treating migrants badly.
International criticism of Belarus escalated on Tuesday, with the European Commission accusing it of acting like “a gangster regime” and of criticizing Lukashenko’s “false promises” that made migrants believe that they would gain “easy entry into the EU”.
The diplomatic drama comes the day after ugly scenes on Monday, when groups of migrants attempted to cross the border, some of whom were pushed to the barriers by Belarusian services, according to Polish border guards.
Polish authorities closed the Kuznica border post on Tuesday morning, where large numbers of migrants gathered the day before.
The Belarusian Border Committee – which is responsible for the country’s external borders – said in a statement that there were around 2,000 migrants at the scene.
Around 14,000 Polish soldiers, police and border guards are now stationed in the region, raising fears of a major confrontation as migrants attempt to enter Poland.
The situation on the ground seemed calm on Tuesday, according to Juergen Weichert, a journalist working for the German branch of CNN n-tv in Kuznica. Weichert reported that Polish police were trying to clear the area as much as possible and that migrants on the Belarusian side of the fence were still trying to get through the barbed wire north and south of the closed Kuznica Passage.
Images provided by the Belarusian State Borders Committee showed migrants wrapped in coats and hoodies huddled around small campfires, with aerial shots showing camps scattered along the Belarusian side of the border near the neighboring forests. The video also showed the movement of what appeared to be military vehicles on the Polish side.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned on Tuesday that the situation endangered the security of the entire European Union and again accused Belarus of fabricating a “hybrid attack”.
“Sealing the Polish border is our national interest. But today the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake, ”said Morawiecki, who visited soldiers at the border on Tuesday.
“This hybrid attack by the Lukashenko regime is targeting us all. We will not be intimidated and will defend peace in Europe with our NATO and EU partners, ”he added.
On Monday, Szczepańska said groups of migrants tried to force the border crossing. The Polish Defense Ministry also tweeted on Monday that there had been a massive attempt to cross and that migrants had set up a camp which was “constantly guarded by Belarusian services”.
In several videos from Polish authorities, hundreds of migrants could be seen walking towards the border. In one clip, some were shown trying to break through a fence using shovels, wire cutters and brute force.
Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have seen an influx of people trying to enter their countries from Belarus in recent months.
Polish border guards recorded 309 attempted illegal crossings on Monday and 17 people were arrested, Szczepańska added. Poland has stopped more than 32,000 border crossing attempts since September, mostly coming from migrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, she said.
On Monday, Polish officials said they had mobilized thousands more troops in response to the influx of migrants. Lithuania, neighboring Poland and Belarus, has also announced that it is redeploying its troops.
Many migrants at the border hope to travel from Poland deeper into Western Europe. In Germany, federal police said in a statement they recorded 595 illegal entries at Brandenburg’s border with Poland in November alone. The state of Brandenburg borders most of the German-Polish border.
German authorities added that they had registered 4,890 entries with a Belarusian connection so far this year.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Tuesday that EU countries should “stick together” and help the Polish government secure its borders. “The Poles render an important service to the European Union,” added Seehofer.
Border conflict escalates
The European Commission said on Tuesday that the EU would likely impose new sanctions against Belarus for encouraging people to enter Poland illegally. In his daily briefing, the Commission’s main spokesperson for foreign affairs, Peter Stano, said discussions were underway between member states over new sanctions which are “underway”.
The spokesperson stressed that Lukashenko’s “irrational and irresponsible behavior” was a sign that he “felt the growing pressure” of the EU’s deployment of sanctions.
“And why do we have any reason to believe the penalties are severe? Because the Lukashenko regime is starting to behave like a gangster regime because it hurts them, and they don’t know what else to do. So they are trying to undermine the European Union by attacking and launching a hybrid attack against the member states of the European Union. “
Meanwhile, a NATO alliance official warned that it “stands ready” to come to the aid of its allies and called on Belarus to “respect international law”.
The official added: “The use of migrants by the Lukashenko regime as a hybrid tactic is unacceptable. The Secretary General remains in close contact with Allied governments on the issue.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also called Minsk’s actions “unacceptable” and said he had spoken to Polish President Andrzej Duda about the situation.
Concern is growing for migrants
Amid international criticism, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday warned Poland against provocations “directed against the Republic of Belarus to justify possible illegal forced actions against disadvantaged and unarmed people, among whom are many children and women minors ”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko “exchanged views on the refugee situation” at the borders of Belarus, according to a Kremlin statement on Tuesday.
At the same time, the Belarusian Border Committee said in a statement on Tuesday that Poland had lined up military equipment at the border.
“For the moment, a chain of Polish security forces has lined up in front of the refugee camp, equipment has been gathered, including combat vehicles. Representatives of the media, international human rights and humanitarian organizations are not allowed to cross the border from Poland will provide assistance to those seeking refugee status in the EU, ”the statement said.
The committee claimed that some of the refugees felt bad after the Polish side fired tear gas followed by loudspeakers and strobe lights against them during the night. He also said there was a “significant number” of pregnant women and babies among the migrants at the border.
UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said in a briefing Tuesday in Geneva that she was “very alarmed by the scenes we are seeing from the border between Belarus and Poland”.
“We have repeatedly said that the use of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants for political purposes is unacceptable and must stop,” Mantoo added.
Aid groups have previously criticized the Polish nationalist government for its treatment of migrants at the border, where they face grueling conditions as temperatures drop overnight and a lack of food and medical care is available. Human rights groups have also accused Polish authorities of multiple illegal push-backs – a claim that border officials rejected, saying instead that they were acting in accordance with government regulations.
At least seven migrants have been found dead on the Polish side of the border, with reports of other deaths in Belarus, according to Reuters.
CNN’s Zahra Ulllah, Anna Chernova, Stephanie Halasz, Inke Kappeler, Allegra Goodwin, Niamh Kennedy, James Frater and Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report.