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November 15, 2021

The European Union will step up sanctions against Belarus and those closest to its leader in response to an escalating migrant crisis at its border with Poland, officials say. The sanctions could target anyone involved in trafficking migrants through Belarus, the EU officials said.

The EU has accused Belarus of pushing migrants towards its eastern borders to undermine security, a charge it denies. On Monday, hundreds of migrants were blocked at a crossing by Polish troops. A video filmed at the border by the BBC showed migrants sitting down on a road in front of barbed wire and Polish forces in a tense stand-off.

Those migrants came from a large makeshift camp at the Kuznica crossing, where thousands have settled in tents just inside Belarus. They are trapped between Polish guards on one side and Belarusian guards on the other.

The Polish border guard said it expected a forced attempt to breach the border, describing the presence of the Belarusian forces in the area as "worrying". Since the summer thousands of people, mostly from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, have amassed at Belarus's western border with Poland, now enduring freezing conditions in the hope of crossing into the EU.

The EU has accused Belarus of mounting a "hybrid attack" by encouraging thousands of people to cross into Poland and other members states. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. European officials have accused Belarus's authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, of orchestrating a scheme to entice migrants with the false promise of easy entry to the EU.

Mr. Lukashenko has repeatedly denied that Belarus is sending migrants over the border in revenge for existing EU sanctions. Those sanctions were imposed in June following the arrest of an opposition activist on board a Ryanair flight that was flying to Lithuania but was forced to land in Belarus.

EU-Belarus relations have been severely strained since Mr. Lukashenko declared victory in a disputed presidential election last year before crushing dissenting voices. EU foreign ministers are meeting on Monday in Brussels to discuss the new sanctions.

The package could include measures against officials within Mr. Lukashenko's inner circle, and airlines and travel agencies that are flying migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere to Minsk. Ahead of the meeting, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said airlines taking migrants to Belarus could be banned from landing in the EU. Mr. Maas warned that the EU was far from the end of the spiral of sanctions it could impose.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, confirmed stopping the flow of flights carrying migrants was one solution that was being worked on. "From the point of view of the inflow, things are coming under control," Mr. Borrell said.

On Monday, Mr Lukashenko threatened to retaliate against fresh sanctions. He claimed Belarusian authorities were trying to repatriate stranded migrants but many were refusing to go.

Iraq has said it is organising repatriation flights for Iraqi nationals from Belarus, while the United Arab Emirates said it had barred Afghan, Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi citizens from flights to Minsk.

In other developments on Monday:

  • Poland's border guard said 118 attempts to illegally cross its frontier with Belarus were recorded on Sunday
  • Latvia, a member of the EU, said it had deployed 3,000 troops for a military exercise near its border with Belarus
  • Russia said it was ready to mediate discussions between its close ally Belarus and the EU over the border crisis
  • President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed a suggestion that the border crisis was intended to distract from increased Russian military activity close to Ukraine. But Lithuania's foreign minister said Western countries could not rule out a Russian attack on Ukraine while attention was focused on Belarus
  • Schools in the Polish border town of Kuznica and nearby Nowy Dwor will switch to online lessons for the next few days because of the situation