- The European Union will tighten sanctions on the migrant crisis in Belarus
- Block to target airlines, travel agencies in the Middle East
- Belarus says accusations of developing crisis are “absurd”
- Poland says up to 4,000 people are stuck at the border with Belarus
- EU calls on Kremlin to press Minsk; Moscow offers to mediate
BRUSSELS / WARSAW / MOSCOW, NOVEMBER 15 (Reuters) – The European Union will tighten sanctions on Belarus, which on Monday condemned as “absurd” Western accusations that it was the driving force behind a migrant crisis that has left up to 4,000 people stranded in freezing forests on the border with Poland.
EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to agree on further measures to pressure Belarus, with veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko cracking down on protesters who fraudulently challenged a presidential vote claiming victory.
The 27-nation EU imposed sanctions on Minsk for violating human rights. Less than a year after the August 2020 elections, migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo and Cameroon began to appear on Belarus’s borders with the EU, trying to cross into the member states of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
“What we see in Minsk, this inhuman system of using refugees as tools to put pressure on the EU, has not improved, but has worsened in recent days,” said Germany’s EU Minister Haiko Maas. he arrived for talks with his peers.
“We want to sharpen the sanctions against people involved in this human trafficking, and we need to talk about serious financial sanctions being inevitable … We also need to tackle the airlines.”
Migrants from the Middle East and Africa had not previously used this migration route to the affluent European bloc.
Polish border guards have reported 5,100 attempts at irregular passage from Belarus so far in November, compared to 120 throughout 2020. Comparative figures also rose in the two Baltic states.
“Today we need to approve a new package of sanctions,” said EU top diplomat Josep Borrell, adding that they would target airlines and travel agents involved in “this illegal push of migrants”.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry responded by dismissing allegations that Minsk had created the migrant crisis on its borders with the EU as “absurd”, according to the Russian state news agency RIA.
Mr Lukashenko said Belarus was trying to persuade migrants to return home. “But no one wants to go back,” he said, according to Belarus’ state news agency Belta. Minsk would retaliate against any new EU sanctions, he was quoted as saying.
Maas called on Lukashenko’s most powerful ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to put pressure on Minsk to stop risking people’s lives in a tug of war with the EU.
At least eight people have died along the 200-kilometer-long land border between Poland and Belarus, including from cold and exhaustion.
The sparsely populated area with lakes, swamps and forests is becoming even more hostile to people trying to stay warm around bonfires through the cold November nights.
Maas and Borrell called on Warsaw to allow humanitarian aid at the border, where Poland has erected a barbed wire fence and deployed about 20,000 police, border guards and soldiers.
The Kremlin said it was ready to mediate between Belarus and the EU, that Putin would talk to Lukashenko, and that Moscow had no plans to divert gas flows away from Belarus despite Minsk threatening to cut transit through Europe through Yamal pipeline.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also dismissed a statement by the US State Department as “wrong” that the Belarusian border crisis was intended to divert attention from increased Russian military activity close to Ukraine.
EU members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have warned of a risk of military conflict, and their presidents will discuss the matter on Monday with Poland’s Andrzej Duda.
Travel agencies in the Middle East, working in partnership with tour operators in Belarus, have issued tourist visas to thousands of people in recent months, a Reuters survey revealed.
The EU will target airlines flying migrants from the Middle East to Minsk to take them to the border, the bloc’s top executive said. Maas stressed that Turkish Airlines has gone missing.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister called on the EU to stifle Belarusian airports as well. “We need to make Minsk Airport a no-fly zone,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis.
Reporting by Robin Emmott, Sabine Siebold, Maria Kiselyova, Dmitry Antonov, Tom Balmforth, Olzhas Auyezov, Gabriela Baczynska, Alexander Ratz, Thomas Escritt, Pawel Florkiewicz and Andrius Sytas, Written by Gabriela Baczynska, Edited by Catherine Evans
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