Migrants throw stones at Polish law enforcement officers at the Bruzgi-Kuznica border on Tuesday. AFP
Polish forces fired tear gas and water cannon on Tuesday at stone-throwing migrants trying to cross the Belarusian border, sparking accusations from Belarus that EU and NATO member Poland was trying to escalate the crisis.
The events marked an escalation in the tense crisis on the European Union’s eastern border, where the West has accused President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns to destabilise the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies orchestrating the crisis.
Polish border guards, who are deployed along with the army and police, estimate up to 4,000 migrants are currently camped out on the frontier between Poland and Belarus in increasingly dire conditions and freezing temperatures.
Migrants take cover from smoke as they attempt to cross the Belarusian-Polish border at Bruzgi, Belarus. Reuters
Police spokesman Mariusz Ciarka later said the migrants there had been "pacified.” He added that the attackers had been given smoke grenades by the Belarusians and threw stones at the Polish police, with the events monitored by the Belarusian services using a drone. The Polish Defense Ministry also said Belarus gave some migrants flash-bang grenades.
Western powers accuse Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the crisis, possibly with Russia's backing, by luring migrants to the border to sow division in the European Union — claims denied by Minsk and Moscow.
A standoff near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the EU's eastern frontier began last week when hundreds of migrants gathered there.
Polish law enforcement officers use a water cannon on migrants in the Grodno region, Belarus, on Tuesday. Reuters
"Migrants attacked our soldiers and officers with rocks and are trying to destroy the fence and cross into Poland," Poland's defence ministry said on Tuesday, tweeting a video showing apparent clashes at the border.
"Our forces used tear gas to quell the migrants' aggression."
On Tuesday, Lukashenko said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed Monday by phone that neither Belarus, nor the EU would benefit from an escalation of the crisis. He said he proposed a resolution but did not elaborate, adding that Merkel is discussing it with other EU leaders.
Some of the migrants have children with them at the border in their desperate bid to reach the EU. Most are fleeing conflict, poverty and instability in the Middle East and elsewhere. At least 11 deaths have been reported in recent weeks as the weather has turned colder and they are trapped in the dank forest between the forces of the two countries.
Polish law enforcement officers use water cannon against migrants at the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing. AFP
Seven police officers, a border guard and a soldier were injured in the clashes, Polish officials said, with police saying stun grenades and tear gas canisters had also been thrown at officers.
The Belarusian health ministry said that around 20 migrants camping out at the border had received medical assistance in the last few days, including five people treated for eye and respiratory problems in the last few hours.
Belarus also said it was setting up a "logistic centre" in the Grodno region where migrants could sleep.
Polish authorities were bracing for further clashes after some migrants used logs, spades and other implements on Monday to try to break down a border fence, escalating a months-long crisis that has prompted calls for tighter sanctions on Minsk.
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