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Neighbors of Belarus warn migrant crisis might escalate into military confrontation

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
This picture taken on November 11, 2021 shows migrants in a camp on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region. (Photo by AFP)

Countries bordering Belarus have warned that the ongoing migration crisis, particularly at Poland’s border with Belarus, may trigger a military confrontation on the European Union's eastern borders.

The European bloc, particularly its member state Poland, accuses Belarus of coordinating an unprecedented wave of asylum seekers attempting to illegally cross into Poland.

It alleges that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking revenge for EU sanctions by inviting “tourists” from countries that are the main sources of migration to the bloc.

Lukashenko has denied the allegations.

“This increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into the military domain,” said defense ministers of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in a joint statement on Thursday.

They claimed that Minsk posed serious threats to European security by “deliberately” escalating its “hybrid attack” using asylum seekers and refugees to retaliate for EU sanctions.

Ukraine, which is not an EU member state, is also wary of becoming another flashpoint in the current migrant crisis, saying that it would deploy 8,500 troops and police officers to further boost its long northern border with Belarus against the migrant influx.

According to Polish authorities, desperate migrants who are stranded inside Belarus and have reached the common border hurled rocks and branches at Polish border soldiers and even threw logs on a razor wire fence overnight in a bid to force their way into the bloc.

The European bloc’s foreign ministers say it might approve a fifth Belarus sanctions package that would target airlines ferrying the migrants as soon as Monday.

The EU, however, did not say which airlines would be included.

Belarus can cut off gas if EU imposes fresh sanctions: Lukashenko

Separately on Thursday, Lukashenko vowed to retaliate against any new EU sanctions imposed on Minsk over the migrant crisis on Belarus’s border with Poland, including by potentially shutting down the transit of natural gas to Europe.

“If they impose additional sanctions on us... we must respond,” the Belarusian presidency quoted him as saying to officials in Minsk.

“We are warming Europe, and they are threatening us. What if we halt natural gas supplies?,” Lukashenko further said, noting that Russia's Yamal-Europe gas pipeline transits through his country to Poland.

The West imposed sanctions on Belarus over what it called a heavy crackdown on the opposition last year. Minsk denies the allegation.

The developments come as hundreds of migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, are stuck at the Belarus-Poland border in freezing weather.

The United Nations Security Council was to meet later in the day for emergency talks on the growing crisis, amid intensified international pressure to deal with the refugees’ plight.

On Wednesday, Russia sent two strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace in a show of support for its close ally.

According to Minsk, Russian planes conducted military drills for a second day on Thursday.

Minsk and Moscow have already said that the EU was not living up to its humanitarian commitments by preventing asylum seekers and refugees from crossing.

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