Macron and Putin call for a ‘de-escalation’ of Belarus border tensions

The French and Russian leaders spoke for almost two hours on the phone

Amanda Coakley
In Poland
Monday 15 November 2021 20:32
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‘Please save us’: Refugees face death at Poland-Belarus border

France’s president Emmanuel Macron had spoken to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin and agreed on a “de-escalation” of tensions on the border.

The pair spoke on the phone for almost two hours, and a statement from the Elysee Palace said that “it is our hope that this long conversation will yield results in the coming days”.

Putin also promised Macron to “raise the topic” with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko.

At the same time, Lukashenko and German chancellor Angela Merkel talked by phone, according to a social media post by reporters for Belarus state media.

The post said the talks lasted around 50 minutes. The leaders discussed the refugee crisis at the border and ways to provide humanitarian aid. They also spoke about measures to prevent the crisis from escalating. They have agreed to further contacts, the report added.

The talks were the first contact between the Belarusian president and a Western leader since Lukashenko claimed victory in presidential elections in August 2020.

The talks might herald a genuine breakthrough in the crisis, but earlier in the day hostilities between Belarus and neighbouring countries were evident.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia accused Minsk of human trafficking and said Lukashenko’s government must be held accountable for sending migrants to “storm the European Union’s external border”.

“We... condemn the actions taken by the Lukashenko regime instrumentalising migrants for political purposes,” read the joint statement. “Thousands of migrants are being directed by Belarus officials to storm the EU’s external border,” Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda said.

Their accusations came as the EU agreed to impose further sanctions on Minsk, which were first imposed by the bloc following a brutal clampdown on opposition protests following a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that Lukashenko is widely thought to have lost.

The latest sanctions will “broaden the listing criteria” and the bloc will “now be able to target individuals and entities organising or contributing to activities by the Lukashenko regime that facilitate illegal crossing of the EU’s external borders”, said the EU.

Brussels has accused Belarus of mounting a “hybrid attack” by deliberately encouraging thousands of people to try and cross into Poland and other EU member states. In the past few weeks, thousands of people, mostly from the Middle East, have amassed at Belarus’s western border with Poland, in a desperate attempt to cross into the EU.

On Monday, hundreds of migrants approached the border checkpoint separating Belarus and Poland in the hope of being admitted to the European Union.

Starting in the early morning, people left the makeshift “camp” in the no-man’s-land between the two countries and walked up to the last temporary border fence, apparently encountering no opposition from Belarusian troops, while dozens of Polish border guards and troops were stationed on the other side.

Video sent to The Independent showed many in the crowd were families with young children and that the scene was non-violent. After making their approach many migrants sat on the ground in front of the Polish authorities waiting for instructions on what to do next.

“We want the world to see us,” one man told The Independent. “We have been stuck in a jungle in the forest.”

The situation for more than 2,000 people is becoming increasingly desperate as hunger sets in and temperatures at night fall below zero. “We haven’t washed our face for eight days… we’re cold and hungry”, the man said.

Polish border guards were quick to announce on loudspeakers that the migrants would not be allowed to enter the country.

They also addressed their counterparts directly saying, in Russian, that nothing justifies the suffering of women and children.

“Neighbours! Belarusians! We ask you: come to your senses!” the voice over the speakers said.

The European commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, arrived in Poland on Monday as part of a four-day visit to investigate the situation on the border. Poland has come under sharp criticism for imposing a state of emergency along its eastern frontier, which prevents NGOs, journalists and activists from entering. It has also engaged in pushbacks contrary to international rules on asylum.

Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania shows Estonian President Alar Karis (R), Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda (L) and Latvian President Egils Levits during their meeting in Vilnius

In Iraq, foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said the country will carry out its first repatriation flight on Thursday for people “who wish to return voluntarily”. So far, people who have travelled west of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to the border with Poland, have not been allowed to turn around. It is unclear if they will be able to do so later in the week.

Many members of the European Union have criticised Russia’s support for Belarus throughout this humanitarian and geopolitical crisis. The two have engaged in joint military drills near the Polish border and on Wednesday Moscow dispatched two TU-22M3 bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace.

Britain has sent 10 troops to Poland.

Asked about the situation on the border on Monday, British prime minister Boris Johnson said the UK stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with its allies in Europe.

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