WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland reinforced its border with Belarus with more riot police on Tuesday, a day after groups of migrants tried to storm through a razor-wire fence on the eastern frontier where thousands have camped on the Belarusian side in the tense standoff.
The European Union accuses Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns in a “hybrid attack” against the bloc in retaliation for imposing sanctions on the authoritarian government for a brutal internal crackdown on dissent. Thousands were jailed and beaten following months of protests after Lukashenko won a sixth term in a 2020 election that the opposition and the West saw as rigged.
Polish authorities said all was calm overnight on the border — which is also the eastern edge of the 27-nation EU — but they were bracing for any possibility.
Poland’s Defense Ministry said a large group of Belarusian forces was moving toward the migrant encampments.
Polish Maj. Katarzyna Zdanowicz estimated 3,000-4,000 migrants were along the border, including about 800 near the makeshift camp. Belarusian security services also were on the frontier to “control, steer and direct these people,” she added.
She said Poland’s assessment came from aerial observations, alleging that Belarus authorities were taking journalists to the area to promote their version of events.
There was no way to verify many of the details because independent journalists have limited ability to operate inside Belarus, and a state of emergency in Poland kept reporters and others away from the border area.
The Belarusian Defense Ministry summoned the Polish military attache to protest what it described as “unfounded and unlawful Polish allegations of Belarusian servicemen’s involvement in the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.”
The ministry also voiced concern about the buildup of Polish troops on the border, saying that international rules envisage issuing a notice and inviting Belarusian observers for any military activities involving more than 6,000 troops and noting that Poland has done neither.
The crisis has been simmering for months after the EU countries of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia that border Belarus accused the government in Minsk of encouraging thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, to illegally enter those nations.
Many of the migrants often end up stuck in a forested area of swamps and bogs, pushed back and forth between Belarusian and Polish forces.
The Belarusian opposition urged the West to toughen sanctions on Minsk.
“It’s necessary to introduce tough sanctions, trade embargo and a full stop of transit of goods between the EU and Belarus,” Pavel Latushka, a leading Belarusian opposition figure, said on a messaging app. “First of all, we are urging Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as countries on the frontline of a hybrid attack launched by the regime to stop transit.”
On Tuesday, the EU tightened visa rules for Belarus officials, saying it was “partially suspending” an agreement with Minsk. The move affects Belarusian government officials, lawmakers, diplomats and top court representatives by requiring them to provide additional documents and pay more for visas.
Lawmakers in Lithuania voted to declare a state of emergency for a month along its border with Belarus, restricting the movement of vehicles and banning all entry, except for residents, in a zone reaching 5 kilometers (3 miles) inland. Guards will be able to check vehicles and people, and gatherings will also be banned. It also applies to accommodations for migrants in the capital of Vilnius and elsewhere.
At least 170 migrants were stopped from entering Lithuania on Tuesday.
In videos posted on Twitter by Polish police, the migrants were seen camping in tents and cooking over camp fires in near-freezing temperatures. The Polish police played an announcement warning them that crossing the border is only allowed at official crossings, where visas are required.
As of early Tuesday, the nearest crossing point in Kuznica was closed.
The U.N. refugee agencies — the UNHCR and International Organization for Migration — called the situation “alarming.” They said they have contacted governments in both Poland and Belarus, urging them to ensure that those in the makeshift camp receive humanitarian assistance.
A man in the Polish village of Bialowieza told The Associated Press that he has met many migrants who often are thirsty, hungry and in need of boots or medical care. He is among volunteers giving them food and other aid, and spoke on condition of anonymity because Polish authorities are discouraging such help.
“They are in really bad condition and the situation is getting worse” as temperatures drop, he said.
Some of the migrants are not aware of where they are, believing they were in Germany and appeared to have been “very disinformed by Belarusian soldiers and guards,” the man said.
At least eight deaths among the migrants have been recorded by Polish and Belarusian authorities, most of them in Poland.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki went to the border Tuesday, accompanied by Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, to meet with border guards and other security officials.
“We do not know what else Lukashenko’s regime will come up with — this is the reality,” Morawiecki said, praising the guards’ work.
Poland has received strong signals of solidarity from inside the EU as well as the United States in the confrontation with Belarus.
Germany’s outgoing interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said all EU countries “must stand together, because Lukashenko is using people’s fates — with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin — to destabilize the West.”
“The Poles are fulfilling a very important service for the whole of Europe,” he said.
Lukashenko’s office said he discussed the situation on the border with Poland with Russian President Vladimir Putin, underlining “special concern” about the deployment of Polish troops near the border.
Many migrants have flown to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on tourist visas, and from there travel by taxi to the border with Poland. The EU is seeking to pressure airlines not to facilitate such trips.
Although direct flights from Iraq to Minsk were suspended in August, migrants have been flying into Belarus from Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and even Russia, according to recent internal EU migration reports seen by the AP. Smugglers have used social media to advertise transportation from Belarus to Germany by car.
Pavel Usau, the head of the Center for Political Analysis and Prognosis, said Lukashenko expects the West to make concessions.
“Lukashenko is provoking the West to take aggressive action, but, on the other hand, he expects that Western countries will yield to pressure and will be forced to engage in negotiations,” Usau said in a telephone interview from Warsaw.
Geir Moulson in Berlin, Lorne Cook and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels, Vladimir Isachenkov and Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain, contributed.
Follow all AP stories on global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration.