Poland detains refugees, increases troops at Belarusian border
Hundreds more make failed attempts to cross the Belarus-Poland frontier as the crisis escalates.
Poland has detained hundreds more migrants and refugees who attempted to enter the country from Belarus overnight and deployed 3,000 extra soldiers to strengthen the border.
Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told broadcaster PR1 on Wednesday that it was “not a calm night”, as he reported “many attempts to breach the Polish border”.
Some tried to break through a barbed-wire fence using spades and other tools, but were repelled by Polish security forces.
Crowds of people have gathered in subzero temperatures near the Belarus-Poland frontier in recent days hoping to cross into the European Union nation, bringing a simmering months-long border crisis to a head and prompting flashbacks of the 2015 refugee crisis.
Polish radio station RMF said about 200 people tried to breach the border on Tuesday afternoon, and a second group of 60 people made an attempt after midnight.
Blaszczak said all who attempted to cross were detained, and that the force of Polish soldiers stationed in the area had been strengthened to 15,000 from 12,000.
Hundreds are camped along the border, a fraction of the estimated 4,000 migrants and refugees gathered in areas near the frontier, including nearby forests.
EU slams Minsk’s ‘gangster-style’ tactics
Poland and other EU states accuse Belarus of encouraging the migrants and refugees – who are mostly from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa – to cross in revenge for Western sanctions on Minsk over President Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissent after last year’s disputed election.
EU diplomats told Reuters news agency on Tuesday that the bloc was close to imposing more sanctions on Belarus over the escalating crisis, targeting about 30 individuals and entities, including the Belarusian foreign minister.
The EU earlier on Tuesday accused Lukashenko of using “gangster-style” tactics in the standoff, in which at least seven people have died amid warnings from human rights groups that they face freezing conditions and a lack of food and medical attention.
Germany’s acting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement on Wednesday that the images from the Belarusian border were “horrific”.
“Lukashenko …unscrupulously exploits people seeking refuge as hostages for his cynical power play… But the European Union cannot be blackmailed.” he said.
Minsk, which is backed by Russia, denies engineering the migrant crisis and blames European powers and the United States for the plight of the people stranded at the border.
On Wednesday, the Belarusian border guard service accused Warsaw of illegally pushing back migrants and refugees.
Belarus’s foreign minister meanwhile said the EU was “provoking” the standoff on its border with Poland and added Minsk was seeking a “joint response” to the crisis with Russia.
“The migrant crisis was provoked by the EU itself and its states that border Belarus,” Vladimir Makei said on a visit to Moscow.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said the war of words over the dispute appeared to be “heating up”.
“There are lots of conversations taking place across Europe now at the higher echelons of politics about how to deal with this,” he said.
Polish PM says Putin ‘mastermind’ of crisis
The Kremlin has also blamed the crisis at the Poland-Belarus border on the EU, saying the bloc has failed to uphold its own humanitarian values and was trying to “strangle” Belarus with plans to close part of the frontier.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that comments by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki – who has blamed Moscow for the situation – were unacceptable.
Morawiecki on Tuesday charged Russian President Vladimir Putin with orchestrating the crisis, which he said threatened to destabilise the 27-member EU.
“This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin,” Morawiecki told the Polish Parliament on Tuesday, after visiting security forces along the border.
Putin on Wednesday suggested to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that EU member countries discuss the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border directly with Minsk, his office said.
A German government spokesman said Merkel had told Putin in a phone call that Belarus’s “instrumentalisation of migrants” was inhumane and unacceptable, and asked him to put pressure on the Minsk government.
Moscow has sent two strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace amid the crisis.