SOKOLKA: Polish forces fired tear gas and deployed water cannons against stone-throwing migrants trying to cross the Belarusian border on Tuesday, sparking accusations from Belarus that Poland was trying to escalate the crisis.
Western powers accuse Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the crisis, possibly with the backing of Russia, by luring migrants to the border to sow division in the EU — claims denied by Minsk and Moscow.
A standoff near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the EU’s eastern frontier began last week when hundreds of migrants gathered there.
“Migrants attacked our soldiers and officers with rocks and are trying to destroy the fence and cross into Poland,” Poland’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, tweeting a video showing apparent clashes at the border.
Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz accused Poland of exacerbating the problem.
“The goal of the Polish side is completely understandable — it needs to escalate the situation, even more, to stifle any progress in resolving the situation,” he said.
“We see today from the Polish side direct provocations and inhumane treatment of the disadvantaged,” he said.
Russia also condemned Poland’s use of tear gas and water cannons against the migrants, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling it “absolutely unacceptable”.
Lukashenko, who has crushed the opposition to his rule over nearly three decades in power, said on Tuesday that he wanted to avoid a “heated confrontation” at the border.
“The main thing now is to protect our country and our people, and not to allow clashes,” he told a government meeting, according to state news agency Belta.
The Belarusian leader discussed the crisis with Germany’s Angela Merkel on Monday, his first phone call with a Western leader since he suppressed mass protests against his rule last year.
Merkel’s office said the pair discussed bringing humanitarian aid to the migrants, whose number includes many young children.
“We were of the united opinion that nobody needs escalation — not the EU, or Belarus,” he said. But he said he had “differing” views with Merkel on how the migrants got to Belarus, with the West saying Minsk had brought them there as revenge for sanctions.
The US has also vowed to expand its sanctions on Belarus.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania, welcomed the sanctions saying Lukashenko had “crossed all the red lines already”.