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Biden Says Situation On Poland-Belarus Border 'A Great Concern,' As Migrant Deaths Mount

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A group of migrants moves along the Belarusian-Polish border toward a camp to join those gathered at the spot and aiming to enter EU member Poland, in the Hrodna region on November 12.

The U.S. and Russian presidents have publicly stepped into the debate over the mounting crisis on the Poland-Belarus border, where military movements and the discovery of a body overnight have highlighted the dangers as thousands of third-country migrants shelter in freezing conditions on the Belarusian side hoping to cross into the European Union.

U.S. President Joe Biden expressed concern on November 12 about the situation, calling it "a great concern."

"We communicated our concern to Russia, we communicated our concern to Belarus," Biden told reporters on November 12 as he departed the White House for a weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat. "We think it's a problem."

Hours later, on November 13, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted his country was not involved in the border crisis despite Western accusations and recent air patrols and military exercises along Belarus's western border with the EU.

And a Belarusian report said strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who the European Union blames for "weaponizing migrants" to spark the crisis, has ordered food tents and aid to be sent to migrant children at the makeshift encampments.

Biden's remarks came hours after Vice President Kamala Harris voiced similar concerns during a visit to France, where she said she discussed the issue with President Emmanuel Macron.

Belarus "is engaged in very troubling activity. It is something that I discussed with President Macron, and the eyes of the world and its leaders are watching what is happening there," she told a news conference.

EU leaders have accused Minsk of "hybrid warfare" tactics, saying it has lured migrants from war-torn and impoverished countries in the Middle East and Africa and then pushed them toward the border.

'Food And Milk': Video Lures More Migrants To Belarusian Border As 'Catastrophic' Crisis Grows
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EU officials say Minsk's policies are retaliation for sanctions that Brussels has imposed on Lukashenka's regime over its violent crackdown on dissent after he claimed victory in last year's election, widely seen as rigged.

They have signaled their intention to impose additional sanctions as soon as next week.

Belarus denies that it is doing so. It says it cannot help resolve the migration crisis unless Europe lifts sanctions that were imposed in response to the crackdown.

Some EU governments, including Poland, have accused Moscow of helping ally Lukashenka orchestrate the border crisis.

This week, Russia launched ongoing nuclear-capable bomber patrols over Belarus and surprise joint paratrooper exercises near Belarus's western border, on top of political and diplomatic support it has offered Lukashenka since the highly criticized vote in August 2020.

Putin issued a statement on November 13 insisting that Moscow was not a party to the Belarus border problem while reiterating concerns about Russia's regional security.

"I want everyone to know. We have nothing to with it," Putin told state broadcaster Vesti in an interview.

He said he hoped German Chancellor Angela Merkel might speak with Lukashenka, since, as he put it, most of the migrants congregating in Belarus are seeking to travel to Germany.

The Russian president also suggested that NATO activities in the Black Sea region, tense since Russia annexed Crimea and Kremlin-backed separatists launched a conflict in 2014, were a security irritant.

Ukraine is wary of becoming a new flashpoint in the crisis and on November 12 said it would send some of its border guards and national guard officers to its border with Poland to share intelligence on the handling of the crisis.

"Ukraine supports Poland in this difficult time and hopes that it will be able to resolve the artificially inspired crisis in a peaceful and civilized way," Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyskiy said, according to a statement.

Belarus's Defense Ministry said on November 12 that it was holding joint paratrooper exercises with Russia near the Polish border. Moscow called the drills part of a "surprise combat-readiness check."

Russia later reported that two of its paratroopers had died about 10 kilometers from the Polish border in a fall amid gusty wind conditions during those exercises.

Belarus also said on November 12 that it had sent some 2,000 migrants back to their countries and had revoked the right of 30 tourist firms to invite migrants into Belarus.

Several airlines said on November 12 that they'll limit access to flights between Turkey and Minsk to stem the flow of migrants from the Middle East.

Polish police said on November 13 that the body of a Syrian man had been found the previous day near the Belarusian border.

It was at least the 11th reported migrant death on or near the border since the crisis began.

"Yesterday, in the woods, near the border, near Wolka Terechowska, the body of a young Syrian man was found," local police said on Twitter. They said they were unable to make an "unequivocal determination of the cause of death."

A number of previous deaths have been blamed on exhaustion or exposure, and temperatures in the region have plummeted in recent weeks.

Belarusian news agency BelTa reported on November 13 that Lukashenka -- whose embattled regime has been accused of propagandizing the migrants' plights -- had ordered food tents be set up in the border region and said a priority should be given to children.

A significant proportion of migrants heading through Belarus to the EU are Iraqis. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry on November 12 announced the withdrawal of the work permit of the Belarusian consul in Baghdad and said the Iraqi embassies in Moscow and Warsaw were coordinating efforts for the voluntary return of Iraqis stranded on the border.

The Foreign Ministry also said Iraq had stopped direct flights between Iraq and Belarus, according to a statement quoted by the Iraqi News Agency.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, INA, and RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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