With no end in sight for the weeks-long crisis at the European Union’s eastern frontier, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has told hopeful asylum seekers that his country would not stop them from attempting to cross into the bloc.
Addressing a group on Friday, his first public appearance at the border since the start of the crisis, Lukashenko met asylum seekers and refugees at a warehouse turned into a shelter and told them they were free to head west or go home as they chose.
An Iraqi teenager told Lukashenko she could not return home and hoped to continue on to Europe.
“We won’t only hope,” Lukashenko answered. “We will work together on your dream.”
Lukashenko said no one would be coerced.
“If you want to go westwards, we won’t detain you, choke you, beat you,” he said as hundreds applauded. “It’s up to you. Go through. Go.”
He added, “We won’t in any circumstances detain you, tie your hands and load you on planes to send you home if you don’t want that.”
Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers are stuck between Belarus and Poland, in what the EU has said is a crisis Minsk engineered by distributing Belarusian visas in the Middle East, flying them in and pushing them across the border.
Lukashenko said it was the EU that deliberately provoked a humanitarian crisis that needed to be resolved.
On Friday, he told the asylum seekers he would not play politics with their fate.
Poland and other EU nations have argued the crisis is part of a “hybrid war” Minsk is waging in retaliation for EU sanctions imposed in response to Lukashenko’s crushing of protests against his disputed re-election last year and is designed to destabilise the bloc.
The EU has agreed on new sanctions in response to the border crisis, which diplomats in Brussels said should be approved and adopted in early December.
Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have deployed thousands of border guards, soldiers and police to seal the border and push back people attempting to cross over from Belarus.
On Friday, Lithuania said it could close its border crossings if more attempted to cross from Belarus in trucks.
Belarus has begun to fly some people home.
On Friday, two planes brought hundreds of Iraqis back from Belarus to Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.
Two more flights were expected on November 26 and 27, the TASS news agency reported.
Warsaw has said the repatriation of refugees and asylum seekers marked a change of tactics rather than a genuine attempt at de-escalation and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, touring European capitals this week to rally support for a tough response, has raised the possibility of further sanctions if the crisis escalated.
Poland and Lithuania have continued to report crossing attempts by people who are increasingly desperate with the onset of winter conditions. Polish authorities also reported unrest at one of the detention centres set up for refugees and asylum seekers who made their way into the country.
The issue has exacerbated strife between Russia, which is Belarus’s main backer, and the EU, whose ties have been at post-Cold War lows since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who helped Lukashenko ride out mass street protests after last year’s election, has also supported Minsk in its most recent standoff with the EU.
Meanwhile, humanitarian fears are growing, with the reported deaths of at least a dozen refugees and asylum seekers in the past few weeks. The real number of casualties is widely understood to be higher.