Migrant crisis on Belarus border could escalate into war, neighbouring countries warn
The migrant crisis at the Belarusian border could descend into all-out war, neighbouring countries warned today as Ukraine sent 8,500 reinforcements to its frontier with the Kremlin-backed state.
Tyrant Alexander Lukashenko earlier threatened to cut off Europe’s gas supply after Brussels said it would slap Minsk with fresh sanctions for ‘weaponising’ migrants at the Polish border.
Thousands of desperate refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have been ferried to the Belarus-Poland border this week by Lukashenko’s security forces, prompting Poland to deploy 15,000 troops along the line.
Belarusian soldiers have been cutting holes in the barbed wire fence and some 400 migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, poured across the frontier last night, a police source told MailOnline.
EU members Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia released a joint statement warning that the ‘hybrid attack’ using migrants risked ‘serious incidents that could also spill over into the military domain.’
Non-EU member Ukraine was equally wary, announcing massive drills along its border with Belarus to the south with thousands more troops to reinforce the border contingent, including 15 more helicopters.
As tensions mounted over the crisis, Vladimir Putin lent fresh support to Lukashenko today by sending two nuclear bombers to carry out drills in Belarusian airspace for the second day running.
Lukashenko turned the screw again today as he warned: ‘If [the EU] impose additional sanctions on us … we must respond.’
‘We are warming Europe, and they are threatening us,’ Lukashenko said, pointing out that Russia’s Yamal-Europe pipeline passes through Belarus to Poland.
The dictator asked: ‘And what if we halt natural gas supplies?’
The Yamal-Europe is one of three major Russian pipelines into Europe and represents around 20 per cent of Russia’s supplying capacity. Russia supplies around 50 per cent of the EU’s natural gas imports. Unlike much of Europe, the UK is not reliant on Russia for its gas supply. Although Britain imports most of its gas, less than 5 per cent comes from Russia (which Gazprom delivers through the BBL Pipeline from the Netherlands, as shown on map). Most of the gas Britain imports comes from Norway.
A wailing child at the Belarusian-Poland border on Thursday. Belarus is accused of ‘weaponising’ migrants by flying them in from the Middle East and North Africa and taking them to the EU border
Children touch the barbed wire fence as Polish guards look on. Around 15,000 Polish soldiers have been deployed on the border. Warsaw has promised to defend itself and the rest of Europe from what it calls an ‘invasion’
A Russian Tu-160 supersonic strategic missile-carrying bomber over Belarus today
Two Russian nuclear bombers were flying over Belarus on Thursday amid soaring tensions at the EU border over the migrant crisis
A mother feeds a young child in frigid conditions at the Belarus-Poland border on Thursday. Temperatures are plunging below freezing at night, making camping at the frontier increasingly perilous
A young boy and a group of men behind me looking stony-faced at the Polish border on Thursday
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko (pictured) has been accused of weaponising migration by deliberately flying in would-be refugees from the Middle East and north Africa and sending them across the border into Poland
The Yamal-Europe is one of three major Russian pipelines to the Continent and represents around 20 per cent of Russia’s supplying capacity. Russia supplies roughly half of the EU’s natural gas imports.
Fortunately Britain relies on Russia for less than five per cent of its gas imports. The UK, which imports most of its gas, pipes around three-quarters of it in from Norway.
Putin has promised Moscow will try to help Europe weather an energy crunch and is hoping that German authorities will soon certify the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry more Russian gas to Germany.
European ministers on Wednesday stunned Brussels when they admitted they were considering a Trump-style wall to end the migrant crisis, as well as a raft of new sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans to further squeeze Lukashenko.
Amid the dispute, some 4,000 desperate refugees from war-torn countries are camped at the border with limited supplies of food and water and temperatures plunging below freezing at night.
Refugees from Iraq and Syria have told how the Belarus authorities are doing ‘everything they can’ to help them reach Western Europe.
A local welfare volunteer told MailOnline: ‘Belarusian soldiers cut holes in fence to help the refugees get through, the refugees have told me.
‘This is happening every night. They use wire cutters and then leave on the ground for anyone to see.
‘There are so many refugees trying to get into Europe.
They have no choice. They are from Syria and Iraq and are fleeing for their lives.
‘We, the people in Bialowieza, do what we can to help them. But now most of the refugees are detained by the army and are forced back over the border.
‘The soldiers make them get into a truck, take the refugees to a crossing point and make them go back to Belarus.
‘The refugees have a right to apply for asylum in Poland but this government does not follow the law.’
She added that dozens of migrants have perished trying to make it to Poland.
She said: ‘There are bodies of refugees lying in the woods. Nobody know how many people have died.
‘But as the temporary goes below zero at night we are not surprised to hear that people are freezing to death.’
A police source today confirmed that 400 migrants crossed the border near Bialowieza last night.
The village has been sealed off to everyone who does not live there including aid workers and journalists.
The source told MailOnline: ‘Last night 400 crossed the border illegally into Poland. The night before it was 200.
‘The Belarus army is helping them of course.’
Lukashenko today also claimed that migrants on the border had been receiving weapons and explosives from conflict-riven eastern Ukraine for the past two days.
‘Why are weapons coming here? They want to stage a provocation,’ Lukashenko said, adding that the Belarusian military should be vigilant.
Countries bordering Belarus on Thursday warned the migrant crisis on the European Union’s eastern borders could escalate into a military confrontation.
Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia said Belarus posed serious threats to European security by deliberately escalating its ‘hybrid attack’ using migrants to retaliate for EU sanctions.
‘This increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into the military domain,’ a joint statement by the countries’ defence ministers said.
In the south, Ukraine said it was deploying another 8,500 soldiers and policemen, as well as 15 helicopters, to guards its border with Belarus as it aims to prevent attempts by migrants to breach the frontier.
While not an EU member, Ukraine is wary of becoming another front in the migrant crisis.
Small children are wrapped in warm clothing at the border where temperatures today were around 41F, or 5C
A group of migrants stand in line waiting to fill up bottles at a water tank in the Grodno border region
A photo provided by the Belarusian state shows migrants camped at the border with Poland on Wednesday. Thousands have flocked to the frontier after being granted visas to travel into Belarus from the Middle East and North Africa
A young migrant family stands beside a barbed-wire fence a the Polish border
Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy said the new forces would include 3,000 border guard servicemen, 3,500 servicemen of the National Guard and 2,000 police officers.
‘Aviation (from) the interior ministry will also be on duty, in particular 15 helicopters, which will ensure mobility and, if necessary, will transfer our forces to the border,’ he said.
Monastyrskiy said earlier on Thursday that Ukrainian border guards, police and the national guard would hold drills on the border with Belarus.
The EU announced it is considering sanctions on Belarus’ main airport in a bid to make it more difficult for airlines to bring in migrants and exacerbate a crisis on the bloc’s borders, two diplomats said on Thursday.
The bloc is also considering a sixth package of asset freezes and travel bans, which could include orders to stop EU firms supplying Minsk National airport, two other diplomats told Reuters.
Lukashenko, already under international sanctions for cracking down on protests, has threatened to retaliate against any new measures, including by shutting down the transit of natural gas via Belarus.
An extraordinary EU summit of the bloc’s 27 leaders is under consideration, while the bloc is also debating whether to use its common funding mechanisms to build border fencing, according to one of the diplomats who was briefed on a closed-door EU meeting that took place on Wednesday.
One senior diplomat said the sanctions on Minsk airport could choke off EU financing, supplies and equipment. Germany’s Lufthansa Cargo is a ground and cargo handler at Minsk National, according to its website.
European Council president Charles Michel stunned Brussels on Wednesday when he said a Trump-style wall could help shore up defences.
It would mark an extraordinary about-face for senior EU officials, who lambasted former US president Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for advocating similar policies.
Lukashenko said there were a lot of children and pregnant women among the refugees, adding they should receive necessary help.
‘There are a lot of women who are eight or nine months pregnant,’ he said. ‘When they are due of course we’ll take them to the hospital and look after them further.’
Lukashenko is accused of luring them to Belarus with visas and using the Russian flag-carrier Aeroflot to transport them from the Middle East and North Africa via Moscow.
The Kremlin called suggestions it is involved in the dispute ‘crazy’ but Putin lent more support today by dispatching two Tu-160 ‘White Swan’ jets to carry out drills for the second day running.
The Belarus defence ministry said: ‘At present two Tu-160 supersonic strategic missile-carrying bombers are practising a number of combat training missions, including simulating bombing at the Ruzhansky air range without using airborne weapons.
The Belarus air force was providing ‘escort’ to the Tu-160s over the country.
Russia’s state-owned Aeroflot airline is accused of jetting thousands of migrants into Belarus via Moscow.
Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that the EU was discussing targeting Aeroflot as part of a new sanctions package, citing an official from the bloc familiar with the plans.
Aeroflot shares were down 1.24 per cent at 10.35am in London.
A migrant family sit around a camp fire near the Polish border. Temperatures have been around 41F or 5C during the daytime but are plunging below freezing at night
The EU could build a border wall on the bloc’s frontier with Belarus to keep migrants out. Pictured: Migrants are seen at a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border. According to the Polish Border Guard, several thousand migrants have been approaching the Polish border since November 8, 2021
Aeroflot AFLT.MM earlier on Thursday denied any involvement in organising mass transportation of migrants to Belarus.
‘Information about the threat of imposing sanctions may have a material negative impact on the operating and financial activities of the company, and its capitalization,’ the airline said.
‘Aeroflot intends to protect the interests of the company and its shareholders in all possible legal ways, including the right to defend the interests of the company in court.’
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov questioned whether there really was such an idea to sanction Aeroflot and said he hoped it would not be realised in any case.
He told reporters on a conference call that Russia was concerned by rising tensions on the Belarus-Poland border where he said there were heavily armed people on both sides.
European Council president Michel, speaking at a ceremony to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, said that Brussels could help build a border fence to prevent asylum-seekers from entering.
‘We have opened the debate on the EU financing of physical border infrastructure,’ he told a stunned audience today in the German capital, which was divided for nearly three decades. ‘This must be settled rapidly.’
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, only last month insisted ‘there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls’.
Lukashenko, dubbed Europe’s last dictator, denies orchestrating what Michel called a ‘brutal, hybrid attack’ on the EU.
Warsaw estimates that 4,000 migrants are camped on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland. Russian state media claimed that many want to reach Britain. But Polish officials said most who have already crossed want to claim asylum in Germany or the Netherlands.
Poland’s defence ministry released a video allegedly showing a Belarusian soldier firing a shot into the air to intimidate migrants as more tried to cross at night.
It shows a crowd of migrants screaming after the shot is fired.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to ‘exert his influence on the regime in Minsk’. Belarus is a former Soviet republic.
Pawel Jablonski, a deputy Polish foreign minister, told the Daily Mail that Putin and Lukashenko wanted to ‘destabilise the EU as a whole’. He accused Lukashenko of ‘seeking revenge’ for EU sanctions imposed on 166 individuals tied to the Belarusian regime last year.
The measures were brought in after Lukashenko’s crackdown on opponents following disputed elections in 2020.
EU ambassadors today agreed to broaden sanctions against Belarus for what Poland said was ‘state terrorism’, to include another 30 individuals and entities. Their assets will be frozen and individuals will be added to a travel blacklist.
Russia took the rare step of dispatching two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace yesterday to show support for its ally.
The UN warned the EU not to ‘enter a race to the bottom’. UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said: ‘These challenges simply do not justify the knee-jerk reaction we have seen in some places – the irresponsible xenophobic discourse, the walls and barbed wire, the violent push-backs that include the beating of refugees and migrants.’