WARSAW – Polish forces at the border with Belarus used water cannons and tear gas Tuesday against stone-throwing migrants, as Warsaw accused Belarusian authorities of giving smoke grenades and other weapons to those trying to cross the frontier.
The events marked an escalation in the tense crisis on the European Union’s eastern border, where the West has accused President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies orchestrating the crisis.
The Poland Border Guard agency posted video on Twitter showing water being sprayed across the border at a group of migrants who threw debris, and the Defense Ministry also said tear gas was used against the attackers. Polish authorities said nine of its forces were injured — seven policemen, one soldier and a female border guard.
Some 2,000 migrants were at the frontier in makeshift camps in the freezing weather, but only about 100 were believed involved in attacking the Polish forces at the crossing near Kuźnica, said Border Guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska. The crossing has been closed since last week.
Police spokesman Mariusz Ciarka later said the migrants there had been “pacified.” He added that the attackers had been given smoke grenades by the Belarusians and threw stones at the Polish police, with the events monitored by the Belarusian services using a drone. The Polish Defense Ministry also said Belarus gave some migrants flash-bang grenades.
Belarus' State Border Guard Committee and the Foreign Ministry said they would investigate Poland’s actions.
“These are considered violent actions against individuals who are on the territory of another country,” committee spokesman Anton Bychkovsky was quoted as saying by Belarus’ state news agency Belta.
Lukashenko on Tuesday again rejected accusations of engineering the crisis and said his government has deported about 5,000 illegal migrants from Belarus this fall.
“We’re not collecting refugees all over the world and bringing them to Belarus, as Poland has informed the European Union. Those who come to Belarus legally, we accept here, the same way any other country would. Those who violate the law, even in the slightest, (we put) on a plane and send back (home),” he told a government meeting dedicated to the situation at the border.
In May, however, he had railed against the EU sanctions imposed on his country for its harsh crackdown on internal dissent, saying: "We were stopping migrants and drugs — now you will catch them and eat them yourself.”
On Tuesday, Lukashenko said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed Monday by phone that neither Belarus, nor the EU would benefit from an escalation of the crisis. He said he proposed a resolution but did not elaborate, adding that Merkel is discussing it with other EU leaders.
Some of the migrants have children with them at the border in their desperate bid to reach the EU. Most are fleeing conflict, poverty and instability in the Middle East and elsewhere. At least 11 deaths have been reported in recent weeks as the weather has turned colder and they are trapped in the dank forest between the forces of the two countries.
While some have managed to get into the EU before Poland, Lithuania and Latvia bolstered their borders, passage appears to be much harder now.
Poland's Defense Ministry said Belarusian forces tried to destroy border fences, and its Interior Ministry posted video apparently showing migrants trying to tear one down. It said the migrants are using the smoke grenades and similar weapons given to them by Belarusian troops who no longer seem to be trying to conceal their involvement.
Poland has taken a tough stand against the migrants' illegal entry, reinforcing the border with riot police and troops, rolling out razor wire, and making plans to build a tall steel barrier. The Polish approach has largely met with approval from other EU nations, who want to stop another wave of migration.
But Poland also has been criticized by human rights groups and others for pushing migrants back into Belarus and not allowing them to apply for asylum.
“It’s very clear that if you see what’s been happening to this group of people =- that their own specific concerns, their particular dignity and their rights — have not been treated with the respect that they should have," said U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq. "And that is why we want them to be able to speak for themselves and to be heard. We don’t want these people to be instrumentalized and used as pawns in the disputes involving the countries.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Poland's actions “violate all conceivable norms of international humanitarian law and other agreements of the international community.”
Warsaw says Moscow bears some responsibility for the border crisis, given its strong support for Belarus. The Russian government has denied responsibility.
Events at the border have been difficult to verify independently. Poland has imposed a state of emergency, which bars reporters and human rights workers from the area. In Belarus, journalists face severe restrictions on their ability to report.
Poland's parliament is expected to consider a bill to regulate citizens' ability to move in the border area after the state of emergency expires in December.
The EU has been pressuring airlines to stop carrying Syrians, Iraqis and others to Belarus, and the efforts were bringing changes. A Beirut travel agency said flights from the Lebanese capital to Minsk had been stopped for now. A Tuesday evening flight by Belarusian carrier Belavia was shown as canceled on the airport's website.
Iraq urged its citizens at the border to return home. About 200 Iraqis in Belarus to travel to the EU have contacted the Iraqi Embassy in Russia about returning home, an embassy spokesman told the Interfax agency. The spokesman said an evacuation flight will leave Thursday from Minsk, and Belarusian authorities have helped bring migrants back from the border.
Social media platforms used by Syrians and Iraqis to navigate the Belarus-Europe track posted photos showing crowds along the border overnight. Some appeared undeterred, posting that they got warm clothes and boots. Messages celebrated those who made it across, and a few urged migrants to head for the Belarus-Lithuania border.
Some described harsh treatment, including beatings, by Belarusian border guards, but most postings appeared to recognize that the Belarus route might no longer work.
“There is no more path to escape. By God, Minsk’s route has ended. What are the new roads?” one person posted on a social media platform.
Litvinova reported from Moscow. Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Yuras Karmanau Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed.