After an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council on the crisis the US and European delegations condemned “the orchestrated instrumentalisation of human beings whose lives and wellbeing have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus.”
Minsk is aiming at “destabilizing neighbouring countries and the European Union’s external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations,” they said in a joint statement.
The statement made no mention of Belarus ally Russia, which before the meeting rejected western allegations that it was working in conjunction with Minsk to send the migrants over the EU’s eastern border into Poland.
And in his second phone call with German chancellor Angela Merkel in as many days, Putin “spoke in favour of restoring contacts between EU states and Belarus in order to resolve this problem,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The EU has so far refused any direct contacts with Belarus’s strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who on Thursday warned that any new sanctions could see Minsk cut off natural gas transit to Europe.
The bloc severed contacts with Lukashenko and imposed sanctions after a heavy crackdown on the opposition following a disputed presidential election last year.
‘They are threatening us’
The EU is expected to decide next week to impose new sanctions on Belarus for human trafficking because of the migrant crisis.
Lukashenko said Thursday that Minsk “must respond” if the EU takes new measures, raising the possibility of cutting off transit through a pipeline that carries Russian natural gas through Belarus to Poland and further into Europe.
“We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said. “And what if we halt natural gas supplies?”
Belarussian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko was bluffing about cutting off gas and urged the EU to stand firm.
“It would be more harmful for him, for Belarus, than for the European Union and I can suppose it’s bluffing,” Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after claiming victory in last year’s vote, told AFP in Berlin.
“We are grateful for the principled position of European countries that they are not going to communicate with (an) illegitimate person,” she said.
‘New kind of war’
Poland has deployed 15,000 troops along its border, put up a fence topped with barbed wire and approved construction of a wall on the frontier with Belarus.
In a statement released for Poland’s Independence Day on Thursday, prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country was facing a “new kind of war” whose “ammunition is civilians”.
Migrants have been trying to cross the border for months but the crisis came to a head when hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.
They set up a camp on the border, sheltering in tents and burning wood from local forests to keep warm, blocked by Polish guards behind razor-wire.
At least 10 migrants have died on the border in recent months, seven of them on the Polish side, according to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
Teams from the UN refugee agency, the International Organization for Migration and the Red Cross visited the camp on Thursday to check on conditions and deliver aid, including hygiene kits and diapers.
Journalists and charity workers have been banned from the immediate border area by Polish authorities under state of emergency rules.
Fear in Polish town
Residents in the Polish town of Sokolka near the border said they were worried by the growing tensions but voiced support for the Polish government’s tough stance.
“I’m afraid of the migrants getting through and what the consequences would be,” said Henryk Lenkiewicz, a 67-year-old pensioner walking by a community noticeboard in the town centre.
Poland has accused Putin of masterminding the crisis, a claim the Kremlin has dismissed as “irresponsible”.
Moscow and Minsk have close economic, political and military ties and Russian air force planes have been flying patrols over Belarus this week, including two Tu-160 strategic bombers on Thursday that were accompanied by Belarusian Su-30S fighter jets.