Migrants trapped in Belarus have clashed with Polish soldiers at the border between the two countries, throwing rocks and debris at the heavily armed guards, who responded with water cannons, tear gas, and flash grenades as the situation at the EU and NATO's eastern border continues to worsen.
The escalation on November 16 prompted NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg to voice deep concern about authoritarian Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka's strategy of "putting migrant lives at risk," and to offer support to alliance member Poland.
Thousands of people, mainly from the Middle East, are stuck in makeshift camps in dire conditions on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, trying to illegally enter the EU.
"The migrants attacked our soldiers and officers with stones and are trying to destroy the fence and get to Poland. Our services used tear gas to stifle the aggression," the Polish Defense Ministry tweeted on November 16.
Live video on CNN showed Polish forces also using water cannons, flash grenades, and smoke grenades against several dozen migrants, who could be seen retreating while a polish helicopter was hovering over the area.
The bloc accuses Lukashenka of facilitating the flow of migrants to Minsk from the Middle East and funneling them to the bloc's borders to retaliate against Brussels for sanctions imposed following a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that saw the strongman claim victory despite accusations from the opposition and the West that the vote was rigged.
In response to protests against the election outcome, Lukashenka has ordered a brutal and often violent crackdown on dissent, arresting thousands while clamping down on independent media. Most opposition leaders have fled the country to avoid arrest.
Lukashenka's government, which is backed by Russia, has denied the EU charges that it is using the migrants as pawns and accuses the bloc of violating human rights by refusing to allow them to apply for asylum.
In response to the crisis, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, which form the eastern flank of both the EU and NATO, have been reinforcing their borders with Belarus.
In Brussels, Stoltenberg said NATO was very disturbed about the "hybrid tactic" employed by Minsk and reaffirmed the bloc's solidarity with members Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.
"We are deeply concerned about the way the Lukashenka regime is using vulnerable migrants as a hybrid tactic against other countries and he is putting the lives of the migrants at risk," he said.
"We stand in solidarity with Poland and other affected allies," Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for a meeting with EU defense ministers.
Later on November 16, Polish lawmakers are expected to take up a proposal to regulate the ability of citizens to move in the area of the border with Belarus after a state of emergency imposed in early September expires at the end of the month.
The renewed clashes on the border come a day after the EU's 27 foreign ministers updated their Belarus sanctions package to include airlines, travel agents, and individuals allegedly involved in the standoff.
The measures are expected to involve asset freezes and travel bans.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration said it was preparing new sanctions targeting Lukashenka’s regime in coordination with the EU over the "inhumane facilitation" of migrants.
The EU and the United States have already slapped several rounds of sanctions on Belarus over the president election and the postelection crackdown.
The Kremlin said that Putin and Lukashenka discussed the migrant crisis in a phone call on November 16 after the Belarusian strongman reiterated earlier in the day that he wants to avoid the crisis turning into a “heated confrontation.”
"The presidents continued to exchange views on the migration crisis at Belarus’ border with the EU countries, taking into account Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s phone call with German acting Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday," the Kremlin said.
Lukashenka on November 16 talked to Merkel in his first contact with a Western leader since he suppressed mass protests against his rule last year.
"We were of the united opinion that nobody needs escalation -- not the EU, nor Belarus," Lukashenka said, according to his office.