Russia sends bombers to patrol Belarus airspace as migrant crisis escalates

Kremlin also rebuts claims that it is the ‘mastermind’ behind events at the Poland-Belarus border

Oliver Carroll,Matt Mathers
Wednesday 10 November 2021 17:22 GMT
Gunshots at Belarus-Poland border as migrants detained

Two groups of migrants broke through border fences from Belarus into Poland overnight as the escalating crisis took on new, militarised dimensions with reports of violence and gunfire on the ground and Russian bombers deployed to fly overhead.

Poland said the migrants were quickly identified and arrested near the village of Bialowieza, before being returned to the Belarusian border.

They were carrying wire-cutting instruments, a spokesperson for the Polish border service said. Both sides accused the other of inhumane treatment of the estimated 4,000 migrants who are trying to cross the border with the European Union.

The rising hostility spurred Poland to warn that the migrant crisis could end in a military confrontation, while the situation has caused alarm across the EU.

European leaders say the crisis is being manufactured by Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and are set to impose further sanctions on Minsk following previous action over human rights abuses.

Mr Lukashenko – improbably – claims he does not have the tools to intervene.

On Wednesday morning, Polish authorities released video footage showing what they claimed was evidence of violence by the Belarusian side.

The video appears to show officers hitting migrants, before firing warning gunshots amid shouts and shrieking. In response, Belarusian authorities offered their own video footage, which showed four Kurdish migrants who had allegedly been beaten by Polish guards when they tried to cross the border.

With journalists and activists barred from accessing border areas on both sides, it is difficult to verify the details of a desperate humanitarian situation.

The Independent understands that hundreds of migrants are trapped in a de facto no-man’s zone – in temporary camps located between Belarusian border guards and the Belarusian side of the border. The migrants’ aim is to enter Poland and head to Germany or other western European countries.

According to international migration law, they have the right to apply for asylum at the Polish border. The situation is unprecedented, however, and Poland has been refusing such requests and sending people back.

The coming winter and sub-zero temperatures appear to be encouraging migrants to take matters into their own hands. Gazhar Askerov, a Kurdish community leader in Russia, has been in contact with hundreds of the migrants.

He says the vast majority of them are escaping the ruins of civil war and Isis, but few are prepared for the situation they find themselves in: camping outside without warm clothing or the food they need to survive.

“I can’t cope with the volume of calls for help I’m getting,” he said. “These people are hostages of politics.”

Askerov, who was in Belarus two weeks ago, says the Belarusian passage to Europe was popularised by social media apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Few of those back home understand the details.

The start of the journey is simple enough: the migrants fly to Minsk, and from there are transported by car towards the border with Poland. They walk the last few miles, before being allowed passage to the border by Belarusian guards. The problems begin once they pass the Belarusian officers, who refuse to allow them to return after an unsuccessful attempt at passing the border.

“The poor guys are caught between two fires,” Askerov says. “The men who can physically handle staying outside keep trying and stay by the border for days. The others have to find a way to escape back.”

Askerov told The Independent that he met one group of migrants in Minsk who had been forced to break through Belarusian army lines by crawling for 300 yards, and then walking for 17 hours.

“There were five-year-old girls and 65-year-old men in the group,” he said. “All of them were suffering by the end of it, with bloated legs and other such injuries.”

On Tuesday evening, the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, claimed that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was behind the migrant emergency. He did not provide specific evidence for his claims.

The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, responded by describing the accusations as “unacceptable”.

Regardless, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Wednesday called on Moscow to exert influence on Belarus over the crisis.

Russia sent two strategic bombers to carry out flights over Belarus, the RIA news agency said on Wednesday. The Tu-22M3 bombers patrolled the airspace and helped test Belarus and Russia’s joint air defence system.

Migrants at a camp on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region
Migrants at a camp on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region (Belta/AFP via Getty Images)

Ministers from EU countries are reportedly meeting later today to determine their collective response. The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said he will be pushing for additional sanctions.

“Lukashenko continues to turn a dangerous spiral of escalation from which there is no way out for himself,” Mr Maas said in a statement released on Wednesday morning. “We will sanction all those who take part in the targeted smuggling of migrants. Lukashenko has to realise that his calculation is not working out.”

Wednesday’s escalation comes after months of simmering tensions, with more and more migrants heading to Belarus and its border with the EU since May. Local reports suggest Minsk is facilitating this by readily providing Belarusian visas to migrants and helping transport them to the border.

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia say Belarusian authorities have chaperoned dozens of migrants to unofficial crossing points at the EU border every day.

Belarus is said to be attempting to enact revenge on, and seeking leverage over, Europe for various sanctions following Mr Lukashenko’s disputed 2020 election victory, a subsequent violent crackdown on protesters, and the arrest of a dissident journalist onboard a Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk in May.

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