EU agrees new sanctions on Belarus, airlines as border crisis intensifies

11:44 am on 16 November 2021

The European Union has agreed to step up sanctions against Belarus, which denounced as "absurd" Western accusations that it was driving a migrant crisis that has left thousands of people stranded in freezing forests on its borders with the EU.

6696060 15.11.2021 Refugees gather at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing as Polish police officers stand guard behind a fence near the Belarusian-Polish border, Belarus.

Refugees gather at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing as Polish police officers stand guard behind a fence near the Belarusian-Polish border, in Belarus. Photo: AFP

The Western bloc is seeking to stop what it says is a policy by Belarus to push migrants towards it in revenge for earlier sanctions over a crackdown on protests last year against veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko's contested re-election.

Migrants - mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan - began appearing on Belarus' land borders with the EU this year, trying to cross into member states Lithuania, Latvia and Poland via routes not used before.

"This inhumane system of using refugees as tools to exert pressure on the European Union ... has got worse over the last days," said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, pledging to target those involved in what he called "human trafficking".

The top EU diplomat, Josep Borrell, said a fifth package of sanctions had been agreed by EU foreign ministers and would be finalised in the coming days. They would target airlines, travel agencies and individuals involved in "this illegal push of migrants", he said.

Latvia said it had deployed 3000 troops for a previously unannounced military exercise near the border. It, Lithuania and Poland make up the eastern flank of the EU and NATO, the paramount Western military alliance.

Stranded on the Belarusian side of the border and increasingly desperate, migrants have tried to force makeshift fences in several places in recent days. Poland, which has reported 5100 irregular attempts to cross the border so far in November, has been criticised for its treatment of those who make it through.

Several hundred people, some throwing stones, made a new attempt on Monday to cross the border near the Polish village of Starzyna, but were forced back, Polish police said on Twitter.

6696043 15.11.2021 Polish police officers stand guard behind a fence at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing near the Belarusian-Polish border, Belarus.

Polish police are out in force at the borders between their country and Belarus. Photo: AFP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lukashenko discussed humanitarian aid for refugees and migrants by telephone, a German government spokesperson said.

The talks are the first known contact between the Belarusian president and a Western leader since last year's presidential election in Belarus triggered mass protests by demonstrators accusing Lukashenko of electoral fraud, a charge he denies.

Merkel and Lukashenko agreed to continue their exchange, the spokesman said, but gave no sign a breakthrough had been made.

Migrants stranded

Middle East travel agencies working together with operators in Belarus provided tourist visas to thousands of people in recent months, a Reuters investigation revealed.

The EU executive said it was looking into whether other airlines should face sanctions after the bloc banned Belarus' state-owned carrier Belavia from its skies and airports. Germany's Maas said Turkish Airlines had stayed away.

Ireland said EU aircraft leasing contracts with Belavia would also end.

The Belarusian foreign ministry said accusations Minsk had engineered the migrant crisis were "absurd", and Lukashenko said Belarus was trying to convince migrants to go home but that none of them wanted to return. Minsk would retaliate against any new EU sanctions, he said.

Curbs already in place include blacklisting of Lukashenko, his son and 165 other Belarusian officials, as well as restrictions on trade in potash, an important export.

The EU called on Lukashenko's most powerful ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to put pressure on Minsk to stop risking people's lives in a geopolitical tug-of-war.

"It is obvious what Lukashenko's regime and its allies want - to test unity of the Western world," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said.

Vilnius said some migrants fly to Belarus via Moscow and he wants the EU to "make the Minsk airport a no-fly-zone", according to Lithuania's foreign minister. Russia has denied any role in migrants' travel to Belarus, and Lithuania has not provided evidence of the travel via Russia.

6696065 15.11.2021 Refugees gather at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing near the Belarusian-Polish border, Belarus.

These refugees are among those from across the Middle East and North Africa who are waiting at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing near the Belarusian-Polish border. Photo: AFP

The Kremlin, which has sent strategic bombers to patrol over Belarus, said Putin spoke to Lukashenko on Sunday and Moscow had no plans to reroute gas flows despite Minsk suggesting it might block Russian gas flows through a pipeline that crosses Belarus.

The Kremlin dismissed a US State Department statement that the border crisis was meant to distract attention from increased Russian military activity close to Ukraine.

At least eight people have died along the 200km-long land border between Poland and Belarus, including from cold and exhaustion. The sparsely populated area of lakes, swamps and forests is becoming even more hostile to people trying to keep warm around bonfires through the cold November nights.

Poland's nationalist government has also faced criticism from rights activists for seeking to cut off the migrants without giving any of them the chance to claim asylum.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have warned of a risk of military conflict. They and Polish President Andrzej Duda said Lukashenko should be held accountable for human trafficking.

- Reuters

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