By Kacper Pempel and Pawel Florkiewicz
BRUZGI, Belarus/WARSAW -President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday Belarus seeks no confrontation with Poland but wants the European Union to take in 2,000 migrants stranded on its border, and he added that if the crisis deteriorated “too far, war is unavoidable”.
The European Union accuses Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into the EU via Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in response to EU sanctions imposed over Lukashenko’s crushing of protests against his disputed re-election.
Minsk denies fomenting the migrant crisis.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Sunday that the crisis might be a prelude to “something much worse”, and Poland’s border guard said Belarusian forces were still ferrying migrants to the frontier.
Lukashenko, as quoted by the state-owned Belta news agency, said he did not want things to escalate.
“We need to get through to the Poles, to every Pole, and show them that we’re not barbarians, that we don’t want confrontation. We don’t need it. Because we understand that if we go too far, war is unavoidable,” he said.
“And that will be a catastrophe. We understand this perfectly well. We don’t want any kind of flare-up.”
THREAT TO CUTTRAINLINK
Poland has threatened to sever a train link between the two countries if the situation does not improve, and Lukashenko was quoted as saying that threat could backfire.
Rail traffic could be diverted to run through a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in such a scenario, he said.
Poland’s government spokesman said on Monday that no decision had been taken, though that option was on the table.
“Closing border crossings always has a double effect. It would also have a negative economic effect for us,” the spokesman told Posat News TV.
Last Thursday, the EU’s executive commission and Germany publicly rejected a Belarus proposal made that same day that EU countries take in 2,000 of the migrants now on its territory.
But Lukashenko, according to Belta, said on Monday he must insist Germany take in some migrants, and complained that the EU was not making contact with Minsk on the issue.
“I’m waiting for the EU to answer. They don’t even look at it (the problem). And even what she (German Chancellor Angela Merkel) promised me – contacts. They are not even getting in touch.”
The Belarusian plan would also entail Minsk sending some 5,000 migrants back home, and Lukashenko said Belarus was preparing a second flight to send migrants home at the end of the month. Over 400 Iraqis were sent back to Iraq last week, the first such repatriation flight since August.
Several people have died at the border, where many have suffered in a cold, damp forest with little food or water as a frigid winter sets in.
Poland’s border guard said last week it had recorded seven deaths, but rights groups say there are more than ten. On Monday, the International Rescue Committee aid group said a total of 13 had died.
Poland said Belarusian forces were still ferrying migrants to the frontier, despite clearing the main migrant camps along the barbed-wire boundary last week.
A group of around 150 migrants tried to break through the border fence near the Polish village of Dubicze Cerkiewne on Sunday, the Polish border guard said on Monday.
“Groups are making such attempts and Belarusian officials are becoming more and more aggressive,” Stanislaw Zaryn, spokesman for Poland’s security services, wrote on Twitter.
The Lithuanian border guard also said Belarus was continuing to bring migrants to its border. Some 70 migrants were prevented from entering on Sunday, it said, while two Ukrainian citizens were arrested on Sunday as they arrived at the border to pick up the migrants, presumably for transportation further into the EU.