Friday 12/3/21
CRISIS

Poland claims victory, says Belarus busing migrants away from border

According to border guards, buses were also to be organized to Minsk for people who wanted to fly back to Iraq from the Belarusian capital

Polish security forces and a water cannon stand behind the closed border crossing of Belarus' Brusgi and Poland's Kuznica. Photo: Ulf Mauder/dpa.
Polish security forces and a water cannon stand behind the closed border crossing of Belarus' Brusgi and Poland's Kuznica. Photo: Ulf Mauder/dpa.

Belarus has begun transporting people away from the Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing with Poland, the government in Warsaw said on Wednesday, claiming that Minsk was on the back-foot in the tense stand-off over stranded migrants.

"I have received information that [Belarusian leader Alexander] Lukashenko has provided the first buses for the migrants to get on and leave. The tent camp near Kuznica is emptying," Polish secretary of state for the interior Maciej Wasik said in televised comments.

"It looks like Lukashenko has lost this battle for the border," he told the TV Republika station.

Dmitry Shevtsov, secretary general of the Belarusian Red Cross, said at the border point that several buses had come to take away migrants.

They were being brought to a children's holiday camp nearby, he said.

However, the bulk of the crowds remained at the makeshift tent camp and in a warehouse near the border, he added.

According to border guards, buses were also to be organized to Minsk for people who wanted to fly back to Iraq from the Belarusian capital. However, it was initially unclear when these buses would leave.

Thousands of migrants - most from war-scarred countries like Iraq and Afghanistan - have become stranded in the border region, creating a humanitarian crisis at the European Union's eastern frontier.

Stranded in freezing conditions

The EU accuses Alexander Lukashenko of luring these desperate people to Belarus and then transporting them to the border with Poland, where they have been left stranded in freezing conditions with little food and shelter.

Brussels says the migrants are being used as pawns, part of a "hybrid attack" to antagonize the EU for refusing to recognize Lukashenko's re-election last year and imposing several rounds of wide-ranging sanctions for the violent repression of protesters.

Around 1,000 migrants spent the night in the repurposed warehouse after clashes between migrants and Polish security forces on Tuesday.

Belarusian state agency Belta published photos of adults and children sitting in a hall with blankets and sleeping bags on Wednesday morning.

Belta also published photos of migrants out in the open, hovered around campfires as they tried to fend off the winter cold.

Chaotic scenes unfolded on Tuesday when powerful jets of water were deployed on the migrants at the closed Kuznica-Bruzgi crossing.

Polish security forces said the migrants were hurling rocks, bottles and clumps of earth at officers. The migrants are also said to have been kitted out with pop grenades and slingshots.

Such reports cannot be independently verified as Poland has banned journalists and aid workers from the area.

Diplomatic activity

The crisis has set off a flurry of diplomatic activity, as European leaders seek help in ending the stand-off, including from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko's main political backer.

On Wednesday, the Belarusian leader's office said he had agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to hold talks with the European Union over the crisis, following their second phone call this week.

The EU has also sought to pressure countries and airlines into stemming the flow of migrants to Minsk.

Last week, Turkey said it was restricting flights to Belarus, while Syria's Cham Wings airline said it would halt all flights to the Belarusian capital.

On Wednesday, Lebanon's civil aviation authority said it would ban most travellers from going to Belarus from Beirut unless they had a residency permit, according to a letter published by the official NNA news agency.

In a letter addressed to airlines and companies operating at Beirut international airport, the authority said the decision is because "the purpose of travel for many Arab and foreign travellers was to enter the territories of EU members states in cooperation with smuggling networks."

Border protection bill

The authority said it had become "practically difficult to distinguish between travellers to Belarus as final destination and migrants to EU."

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Warsaw passed a border protection bill on Wednesday that will allow temporary restrictions on freedom of movement and press access in the region.

Currently, a state of emergency applies to a 3-kilometre stretch of the Polish border. However, this expires on December 2 and cannot be extended.

Under the new law, Poland's interior minister can ban all non-locals from entering a border area in the event of a dangerous situation. Exceptions - especially for journalists - are to be decided by the local commander of the border guard.

After the vote in the Sejm, the lower chamber, the bill now goes to the second chamber, the Senate, where lawmakers can propose amendments.

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