Tensions escalate at Poland-Belarus border as migrants face dire conditions
By Andrew Higgins and Anton Troianovski
As the volatile standoff over migrants along the European Union’s eastern flank grew more precarious on Thursday, with Polish news media reporting that a 14-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq had frozen to death on the Belarus side of the frontier, the language from political leaders on either side of the razor wire ratcheted up.
In Poland, the government’s hard-line policy and its refusal to allow aid workers or even church doctors near the frontier has played well with its right-wing base among Polish nationalists, who on Thursday hold an annual march through the center of Warsaw to celebrate Independence Day.
In a statement posted Thursday on Facebook, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland compared events on Thursday to those that cost Poland its statehood more than a century ago. While stressing that the situation now “is not so dramatic,” he said: “What we are dealing with is a new type of war. This is a war in which civilians and media messages are the ammunition.”
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ autocratic leader, reeled off threats to his country’s western neighbors even as the Kremlin, Lukashenko’s main benefactor, said it was working to resolve the situation.
Lukashenko told government officials in a televised meeting on Thursday that he had agreed with Russia on patrols by nuclear-capable bombers of the country’s western borders. He also said he could shut down the flow of a major pipeline carrying natural gas from Russia to Western Europe via Belarus if the West escalated sanctions.
“We are warning Europe, and yet they threaten to close the border,” Lukashenko said, according to the Belarusian state news agency. “What if we close off the natural gas headed there? I would recommend the leadership of Poland, the Lithuanians and other brainless people to think before they speak.”
With temperatures dropping below freezing along the Belarusian border with Poland and Lithuania, both members of the European bloc, alarm is growing among aid workers that the number of deaths from exposure will increase sharply. So far, eight people have died, officials say, but the real number could be much higher.
With soldiers sealing off the border zone from news media and aid workers, the reported death of the 14-year-old could not be confirmed. The boy’s body, according to a report by OKO.press, had been taken away overnight by Belarusian security services.
Poland and Belarus have both barred journalists from entering the border area and are locked in an escalating information war, each blaming the other for a deepening crisis fed by inflammatory statements about the risk of armed conflict.
In a sign of escalating tension, Poland’s defense ministry on Thursday reported that its soldiers in the frontier area of Białowieza had fired warning shots into the air the previous day after “a group of several hundred migrants attempted to cross the border by force.” The migrants, the ministry said, threw objects at the soldiers and then tried to destroy a border fence.
Polish border guards said Thursday that 150 migrants had tried to cross the border from Belarus en masse overnight.
Polish officials warned of a possible attempt to “storm” the frontier Thursday evening, noting that Independence Day events scheduled across Poland had spread the security services thin, a situation that could encourage Belarus to push a new wave of people to the border.