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‘They will not come in’: Mounting standoff over migrants on Poland-Belarus border

A Syrian migrant named Anas, 23, carries his belongings on Oct. 29 after crossing into Poland from Belarus. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

BERLIN — Polish authorities promised Monday to block the entry of hundreds of migrants gathered on the country’s border with Belarus, where the government has been accused of weaponizing refugees against the European Union.

The Polish Ministry of Defense posted an aerial video of a large group of people massed next to the border fence near the Polish village of Kuznica, with Polish guards lined up to face them on the other side. The exact numbers gathered on the border remained unclear: Belarusian border guards said there were about 1,000 people, while Polish authorities said that “numerous” groups had been escorted to the fence by Belarusian forces.

“They will not come in,” Maciej Wasik, Poland’s deputy interior minister, wrote on Twitter, adding that the Polish border guards, police and army were ready to keep them out. “Poland’s state services are prepared for all circumstances,” he said.

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Video from the Polish Defense Ministry shows large group of migrants gathered on the Poland-Belarus border Nov. 8, as Poland says it fears a 'major incident.' (Video: Reuters)

The E.U. accuses Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of engineering a migrant crisis as a political tool to amp up pressure on Europe as his country faces sanctions following the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to arrest an opposition journalist in May.

The E.U. is considering a fresh round of sanctions against Belarus. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the measures are intended to punish a “form of human trafficking” being carried out by the state.

The U.S. State Department on Monday also condemned what it said was the Belarusian government’s “political exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people” at the border.

“We call on the regime to immediately halt its campaign of orchestrating and coercing irregular migrant flows across its borders into Europe,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a briefing.

In June, Lukashenko warned that Belarus would no longer prevent asylum seekers, drugs and even nuclear materials from entering the 27-member bloc. Since then, Iraqis and other nationals hoping to enter Europe have been encouraged to take flights to Minsk and then try their luck crossing into the European Union on foot.

Migrants attempted to break through a razor wire fence installed on the Polish-Belarusian border on Nov. 8, video shot by Poland’s Defense Ministry showed. (Video: Reuters)

Neighboring Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice party has a hard-line stance against immigration, has fortified its borders and turned around those trying to enter, leaving some trapped and freezing in the forests between the two countries.

“This is a continuation of the desperate attempt by the Lukashenko regime to use people as pawns to destabilize the European Union and of course the values that we stand for,” said Adalbert Jahnz, the European Commission’s spokesman for migration.

Videos posted Monday showed large columns of migrants carrying suitcases and belongings while walking along a highway empty of traffic, escorted by armed Belarusian service members. With official crossings patrolled by Polish guards, the migrants were funneled to a wooded area adjacent to the border, independent Belarusian media outlet Nexta reported.

Some then tried to get through barbed wire fences using wire cutters, according to videos posted by the news outlet and Polish authorities.

“Destruction of border infrastructure is forbidden. You will face criminal charges,” loudspeakers on the Polish side of the border announced.

As the situation escalated, Lithuania, which also has a frontier nearby, said it had moved troops to the area. Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told a news conference that “maximum” forces were being deployed.

The Belarusian State Border Committee blamed Poland for Monday’s escalation, claiming that “the indifference and inhuman attitude of the Polish authorities prompted the refugees to take such a step of despair.”

Humanitarian groups say that vulnerable refugees and migrants caught in the middle are at extreme risk, as they are ping-ponged between the borders with temperatures dropping. The initially small number of crossings has grown in recent weeks.

“More and more people are coming,” said Kalina Czwarnog, a coordinator with Fundacja Ocalenie, which tries to provide humanitarian assistance to those who have crossed. She said their conditions varied.

“Sometimes people are in a state of hypothermia and they really can’t walk again, and sometimes people are in good shape,” she said. She expressed concern about possible violence at the border, as neo-fascist groups have also mobilized to “help” the border guards.

“This border is sacred,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Monday. “The border of the Polish state is not just a line on the map. Generations of Poles shed their blood for this border.”

He said that all parties should side with the border guards in the face of the “threat.”

Jahnz said that Frontex, the joint European agency charged with border control, is ready to assist but that Poland has yet to request its help.

In Germany, the number of arriving asylum seekers is ticking up. As of Sunday, there had been 8,833 “unauthorized entries” to Germany from Poland via Belarus this year, according to official figures. A total of 992 people entered over the past week.

Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, tweeted that the migrant crisis was “true state-backed smuggling,” organized by Lukashenko.

A prominent Belarusian opposition figure, Pavel Latushko, called for new international sanctions against the Lukashenko regime over the migrant crisis. He described the Belarusian leader as “an international terrorist who uses people for terrorist purposes.”

Earlier in the summer, refugees had largely been directed toward Lithuania, where officials accused Lukashenko of weaponizing refugees in a “hybrid attack” and erected barbed wire fencing to prevent migrants from entering from Belarus.

In September, Polish President Andrzej Duda declared a state of emergency covering 183 towns and villages in two provinces bordering Belarus, the first time such powers have been used since the fall of communism. Aid groups say it hampers their assistance to refugees in need.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has said more action needs to be taken, such as stopping flights carrying migrants. He cited success in halting direct flights from Iraq.

Ultimately, “the key to solving the problem lies in Moscow,” said Seehofer, referring to the political leverage it wields.

Russian authorities praised Belarus for handling the crisis “in a legal way.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no doubt that Belarusian authorities were “taking all necessary measures to ensure the security of both Russia and Belarus in connection with the situation with migrants on the Polish-Belarusian border.”

Dixon reported from Moscow. Dariusz Kalan in Warsaw, Quentin Ariès in Brussels, Vanessa Guinan-Bank in Berlin and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

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