By Joanna Plucinska and Andrius Sytas
WARSAW, Poland (Reuters) – Migrants stranded inside Belarus threw rocks and branches at Polish border guards and used logs to try to break down a razor wire fence overnight in new attempts to force their way into the European Union, the authorities in Warsaw said on Thursday.
The EU on Wednesday accused Belarus of mounting a “hybrid attack” on the bloc by encouraging thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and war-torn areas to try to cross into Poland, and is gearing up to impose new sanctions on Minsk.
The crisis has sparked a new confrontation between the West and Russia, which dispatched two nuclear capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace on Wednesday in a show of support for its ally. Belarus said the planes carried out drills for a second day on Thursday.
The Kremlin said Russia had nothing to do with tensions on the border and suggested the presence of heavily armed people on both sides – an apparent reference to Belarusian and Polish border guards – was a source of concern. The prospect of sanctions on Belarus a “crazy idea”, it said.
Trapped between two borders, the migrants have endured freezing weather in makeshift camps. Poland has reported at least seven migrant deaths in the months-long crisis and other migrants have expressed fear they would die.
None of around 150 migrants gathered near the town of Bialowieza managed to breach the border, the spokeswoman for the border guards service Ewelina Szczepanska told Reuters, saying there had been 468 attempts at illegal crossings on Wednesday.
Neighbouring EU state Lithuania, which like Poland has imposed a state of emergency on the border, also reported new attempts to breach the frontier.
In a joint statement on Thursday, the defence ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia said they saw the crisis as “very alarming, and unequivocally condemn the deliberate escalation of the ongoing hybrid attack by the Belarusian regime, which is posing serious threats to European security.”
“Large groups of people are being gathered and transported to the border area, where they are then forced to illegally cross the border. This increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into military domain,” they said.
The bloc accuses Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of manufacturing the migrant crisis in revenge for earlier sanctions after the veteran leader unleashed a violent crackdown on mass street protests against his rule in 2020.
Russian flag carrier Aeroflot AFLT.MM on Thursday denied any involvement in organising mass transportation of migrants to Belarus, after its shares fell on a news report that it could face EU sanctions over the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border.
The Belarusian authorities said more than 2,000 migrants were at the border. Lukashenko and Russia have blamed the EU for the migrant crisis and said the EU was not living up to its own humanitarian values by preventing the migrants from crossing.
Large groups of people fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere started flying to Minsk this spring. They then travel to the border with EU members Poland, Lithuania or Latvia by taxi, bus or cars provided by human smugglers and try to cross.
Polish authorities say the number of flights to Belarus from the Middle East has increased dramatically in recent months, with the Polish prime minister calling on the EU to take action to stem the flow of airlines ferrying migrants to Minsk.
Most migrants use travel agencies across the Middle East which partner with Belarusian companies to book tourism packages that usually include visa, flight and accommodation.
The price of the whole journey varies and can reach up to about $14,000. In October, Minsk restricted the number of travel agencies in Belarus allowed to deliver tourism invitations, and smugglers as well as agencies have reported a rise in prices.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish in Suprasl, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Andrius Sytas in Kapciamiestis, Lithuania; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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