The bloc’s 27 ambassadors are set to agree on Wednesday that the growing numbers of migrants flying to Belarus to reach the EU border amount to “hybrid warfare” by President Alexander Lukashenko – a legal basis for new sanctions.
“Mr. Lukashenko …unscrupulously exploits people seeking refuge as hostages for his cynical power play,” Germany’s acting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter.
He described images from the Belarusian border, where people are stuck in freezing conditions with little food and shelter, as “horrific” but said the EU could not be blackmailed.
The EU accuses Belarus of encouraging the migrants – from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa – to try to illegally cross the frontier in revenge for earlier sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses.
Lukashenko has denied using the migrants as weapons and on Wednesday won a fresh show of support from his most powerful ally, Russia, which blamed the EU for the crisis and sent two strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace.
“It is apparent that a humanitarian catastrophe is looming against the background of Europeans’ reluctance to demonstrate commitment to their European values,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a briefing.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging Moscow to put pressure on Belarus over the situation at the border, a German government spokesperson said. Putin’s office said he suggested to Merkel that EU members discuss the crisis directly with Minsk.
Thousands of people have converged on the border this week, where razor wire fences and Polish soldiers have repeatedly blocked their entry. Some of the migrants have used logs, spades and other implements to try to break through.
“It was not a calm night. Indeed, there were many attempts to breach the Polish border,” Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told broadcaster PR1.
Video from the border obtained by Reuters showed young children and babies among the people stuck there.
“There are lots of families here with babies between two or four months old. They have not eaten anything for the past three days,” the person who provided the video told Reuters, saying they were a migrant themselves and declining to be named.
The Polish border guards service reported 599 illegal border crossing attempts on Tuesday, with 9 people detained and 48 sent back. Blaszczak said the force of Polish soldiers stationed at the border had been strengthened to 15,000 from 12,000.
After midnight, two groups of migrants were turned back. One that was around 200 people near the town of Bialowieza and another of around two dozen was turned back near Dubicze Cerkiewne, a spokeswoman told Reuters.
Neighbouring EU state Lithuania, which followed in Poland’s footsteps by imposing a state of emergency at its border on Tuesday, reported 281 migrants were turned back that day, the highest figure since August when such pushbacks began.
The EU accuses Lukashenko of using “gangster-style” tactics in the months-long border standoff, in which at least seven migrants have died. The new EU sanctions would target around 30 individuals and entities including the Belarusian foreign minister, three EU diplomats told Reuters.
Lukashenko’s government blames Europe and the United States for the plight of the people stranded at the border.
The crisis erupted after the EU, United States and Britain imposed sanctions on Belarus over its violent crackdown on mass street protests that were sparked by Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in 2020.
Lukashenko turned to traditional ally Russia for support and financing to ride out the protests. The migrant crisis has given Moscow an opportunity to double down on its support for Belarus, a country it regards a strategic buffer against NATO, and criticise the EU.
Peskov accused the EU of trying to “strangle” Belarus.
Poland denies accusations by humanitarian groups that it is violating the international right to asylum by hustling migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Warsaw says its actions are legal.
Some migrants have complained of being repeatedly pushed back and forth by Polish and Belarusian border guards, putting them at risk of exposure, lack of food and water.
“Yesterday we helped to secure and evacuate one group of immigrants,” said Michal Swiatkowski, 30, a member of the Polish Red Cross rescue group from Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski.
“There were 16 people, most of them were children. They did not require medical attention, although we donated warm clothes, blankets and some food,” he told Reuters.
By Alan Charlish and Robin Emmott.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish in Suprasl, Poland, Andrius Sytas in Kapciamiestis, Lithuania, Joanna Plucinska, Anna Koper, Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Kirsti Knolle in Berlin, Dmitry Antonov and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Matthias Williams in Kyiv; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by John Stonestreet and Philippa Fletcher).