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Poland Reports More Clashes With Migrants Near Belarusian Border; Merkel, Putin Speak Again

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Migrants gather in a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border on November 10.

Hundreds of migrants trapped along the Belarusian border in freezing temperatures and with little food tried to force their way into EU member Poland, prompting warnings that the crisis could turn into a military confrontation.

Warsaw has accused Belarus of committing terrorism over its role in an escalating border dispute, while the European Union moved closer to penalizing Minsk for provoking the crisis. In turn, Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka threatened to cut off gas to Europe in retaliation for any new sanctions.

Underscoring the seriousness of the crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on November 11 spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time in as many days.

"The chancellor stressed that the situation was caused by the Belarusian regime, which was using defenseless people in a hybrid attack on the European Union," spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

The Kremlin said Putin complained to Merkel about what he called provocative U.S. and NATO actions in the Black Sea, as well as the migrant crisis. Putin also accused Ukraine of increasingly forceful behavior, including the use of drones in the conflict zones in eastern Ukraine.

The crisis has sparked a new confrontation between the West and Russia, which is Belarus’s strongest ally. Moscow dispatched nuclear-capable strategic bombers to fly over Belarus for the second day in a row, in a show of support for Minsk, and a threat to the West.

The U.S. and European delegations on the UN Security Council condemned Belarus's behavior in a joint statement on November 11. After an emergency meeting on the crisis, the Western delegations condemned "the orchestrated instrumentalization of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus."

They said Belarus is doing this with "the objective of destabilizing neighboring countries and the European Union's external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations."

The Polish Defense Ministry on November 11 said “a group of several hundred migrants attempted to cross the border by force” in the area of Bialowieza the previous day, following similar attempts over the past days.

“The attack began by throwing objects at the soldiers and then attempting to destroy the fence. Soldiers fired warning shots into the air,” the ministry tweeted.

The ministry also shared a video of the border area near the Bruzhi-Kuznica border crossing, just outside the western Belarusian city of Hrodno, showing security forces patrolling with dogs along razor wire fences, with crowds of people standing on the Belarusian side of the frontier:

According to the Border Committee of Belarus, more than 2,000 people are gathered on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland.

Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvidas Anushauskas said there could be more than 1,000 migrants along his country's border with Belarus.

"This increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into military domain," a joint statement by the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian defense ministers said, noting the "deliberate escalation of the ongoing hybrid attack by the Belarusian regime, which is posing serious threats to European security."

The EU has accused Lukashenka of flying in migrants and funneling them to the bloc's borders to retaliate against Brussels for sanctions imposed after last year's presidential election, which Lukashenka claimed to have won, but no Western countries have recognized.

The thousands of people massed on the border include men, women, and children from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and other countries.

Lukashenka's government, which is backed by Russia, denies the EU charges and has accused Poland and the EU of violating human rights by refusing to allow the migrants to apply for asylum.

A BBC correspondent posted photos on social media of what he described as “large groups of migrants in central Minsk, almost all heading to Belarus-Poland border.” The pictures showed mostly men wearing winter clothes and carrying backpacks, but also a number of women and children.

EU foreign ministers may approve a new fifth package of sanctions at their meeting in Brussels on November 15. Earlier reports said sanctions would target some 30 individuals and entities, including the Belarusian foreign minister and the national airline, Belavia.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said sanctions will be expanded "very rapidly" at the beginning of next week, including the possibility of sanctioning airlines that "facilitate human trafficking towards Minsk and then the EU-Belarus border."

Meanwhile, Lukashenka warned that Minsk would respond to any additional sanctions against it, warning he could shut off oil or gas supplies transiting Belarusian pipelines to Poland and Europe.

Asked about Lukashenka’s threat, a European Commission spokeswoman told reporters: "We are not going to be intimidated by any potential action by the Belarus regime using gas as a tool."

In a meeting with top security officials, Lukashenka also referred to the overflight by Russian bombers.

“Yes, these are bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. But we have no other option. We must see what they are doing there beyond the borders," he said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Moscow’s claim that it had nothing to do with the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border and rejected as "crazy" a suggestion in a media report that Russia’s state air carrier Aeroflot could be targeted with retaliatory sanctions.

In neighboring Ukraine, the government said police in the four border regions had been put on alert and extra border troops were being deployed to prevent possible attempts by migrants to cross.

Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy said 8,500 border guards would be in place, along with National Guard and National Police units.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart that "the idea that Belarus would weaponize migration is…profoundly objectionable."

Washington will pressure Lukashenka "as long as the regime is refusing to respect its international obligations, or commitments, as long as it's undermining peace and security in Europe through its actions, and as long as it continues to repress and abuse people,” Blinken said on November 10.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and RFE/RL's Belarus and Ukrainian services
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