Poland has warned of a possible “armed” escalation on its border with Belarus, fearing its neighbour may try to provoke an incident with hundreds of migrants seeking to cross into the EU.
Extra troops have been deployed after desperate crowds tried to cut a barbed-wire border fence.
Poland, the European Union and Nato say Belarus is orchestrating the problem, a claim denied by its disputed leader.
Poland says it is shutting a major border crossing at Kuznica.
As many as 4,000 people are now caught up in the migrant crisis on Poland’s eastern border, officials in Warsaw say.
Overnight temperatures at the border have slumped below zero and several people have already died in recent weeks.
EU and Nato members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have all seen a surge in the number of people trying to enter their countries illegally from Belarus in recent months. Many are young men but they include women and children, largely from the Middle East and Asia.
Activists say they are being used as pawns in a political game between non-EU Belarus, run by authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, and its neighbours. EU officials complain of a continuing hybrid attack by Belarus.
UN refugee agency spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said that it was very worried by the latest scenes: “Using refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to achieve political ends is unacceptable and must stop.”
Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller told reporters that at some point they expected “an escalation… which will be of an armed nature”.
Polish TV said many of the migrants gathering near Kuznica were accompanied by armed individuals with dogs.
The head of Poland’s national security department, Stanislaw Zaryn, said the migrants were under the control of Belarusian armed units. “Belarus wants to cause a major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties,” deputy foreign minister Piotr Wawrzyk said earlier.
The Belarus defence ministry rejected the Polish statements as unfounded and unsubstantiated, and accused Warsaw of violating agreements by moving thousands of troops to the border.
Russia meanwhile praised its Belarusian ally’s “responsible” handling of the border row and said it was watching the situation closely.
The EU accuses the Belarus leader of provoking the influx in retaliation against the bloc’s sanctions.
It imposed the measures after Mr Lukashenko’s crackdown on mass protests following last year’s widely discredited presidential election, and the arrest of a dissident journalist on board a Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would look at extending sanctions to include “third-country airlines” involved in flying migrants to Belarus.
Mr Lukashenko has accused border guards in neighbouring EU states of being violent towards migrants. Interior minister Ivan Kubrakov said the migrants had arrived legally in Belarus and “as a hospitable country, we are always ready to accept everyone”.
Germany on Tuesday urged the EU to “take action” to help Poland secure its borders.
Lithuania has also moved troops to its border with Belarus to prepare for a possible influx of migrants.
The BBC’s Paul Adams spoke to Barwa Nusreddine Ahmed, the brother of one Iraqi migrant who was at the Polish border with his wife and three children. They arrived in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, last month.
With little to eat or drink, the people stuck at the border were suffering, Mr Ahmed said.
He said Monday’s move to the border post was planned on social media by the migrants themselves, but suggested Belarus was pushing them.
“People know they’re being used [by Mr Lukashenko], but they have no future,” Mr Ahmed said.
Tensions intensified on Monday when videos posted on social media showed a large column of people, including women and children, walking towards the Polish border in Belarus.
Other videos showed large numbers of migrants being escorted by armed men dressed in khaki.
In other footage shared on social media, crowds of migrants can be seen attempting to breach a razor wire fence at the border, but being prevented from passing through by Polish border guards.
The Belarusian border guard agency earlier told state media that “refugees” were heading for the EU “where they want to apply for protection”.
Article written by: BBC
Photo credit: BBC