Several migrants have died on the border between Poland and Belarus as a diplomatic fallout escalated into a major incident between the autocratic state and the EU on Monday.
Polish authorities have accused Belarus of trying to trigger a major confrontation on its border by deliberately directing thousands of people - mainly from the Middle East and Asia- to the border in recent months.
Belarus has reportedly been encouraging migrants to illegally enter the European Union, at first through Lithuania and Latvia and now primarily through Poland.
The EU has said this is being done in revenge for Western sanctions on Minsk over human rights abuses.
Poland said seven migrants had been found dead on its side of the border, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.Charities say the migrants face freezing weather conditions as the cold Polish winter kicks in and a lack of food and medical attention could put even more at risk.The temperature is expected to drop further in the next few days.
Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller said that there were currently 3,000-4,000 migrants near the border, and more than 10,000 others across Belarus ready to try and cross into Poland.
Writing on Twitter, Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said more than 12,000 soldiers have been deployed on the border, up from the 10,000 soldiers that were there recently.
He added a volunteer Territorial Defence force had been put on alert.
Another video posted by the official account for Poland's ministry of national defence showed a group of men on the other side of a border fence, with one trying to cut the barbed wire.
"Belarus wants to cause a major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties: according to media reports, they are preparing a major provocation near Kuznica Bialostocka, that there will be an attempt at a mass border crossing," Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk told Polish public radio.
A spokesperson for the European Commission, Adalbert Jahnz, estimated that “several hundred people” were now gathered near the border, an imprecise figure that he said came from Frontex, the border agency. Mr Jahnz said: “This is a continuation of the desperate attempt by the (Belarusian President Alexander) Lukashenko regime to use people as pawns to destabilise the European Union and of course the values that we stand for.”
On Monday, Poland's ministry of national defence tweeted several videos appearing to show the escalating crisis at the border.
Since the summer, Poland has been under increasing pressure of migrants from the Middle East and Africa trying to cross into the EU.
Poland has sought to block the attempts or send those they catch back into Belarus. Warsaw and the EU say it’s an organised action by the Belarusian government aimed at destabilising the bloc in retaliation for Western sanctions.
The EU, the United States and Britain imposed sanctions on Belarus after Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on mass protests following a disputed election last year.
The long-time leader of Belarus won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a ballot deemed “neither free nor fair” by the EU, sparking international outrage.
Lukashenko has defied opposition calls to resign.
Poland’s Border Guard has reported incidents of hostile behaviour and threats by Belarusian forces directed across the border at Polish forces.
Belarus, in turn, has repeatedly accused Poland of abusing the migrants at the border.
Belarus’ opposition leader in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said in a statement Monday the Belarusian regime “has carried out an unprecedented international provocation, throwing out hundreds of people that entrusted their fates to it on the border with Poland.” “Lukashenko bears complete personal responsibility for these attacks on Poland, Lithuania and the EU,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “This is an attempt at revenge against democratic countries over their support of the Belarusian people.”