Poland says no military threat at border with Belarus
Warsaw, Poland – Poland’s president said Wednesday there is “no military threat” at the European Union’s border with Belarus, where thousands of migrants watched over by Belarusian forces are pressing to reach the bloc’s soil and where Poland has deployed troops in rear areas.
President Andrzej Duda said Poland was primarily using civilian police and border guards to meet its obligation to protect the EU’s eastern border from the pressure of “illegal migration.”
The presence of the Polish military there is chiefly a backup, he said on a visit to Montenegro.
Earlier Wednesday, a Polish government official said migrants who camped on the Belarusian side were being taken away by bus, suggesting the tense standoff could be easing.
Poland’s Border Guard posted on Twitter a video showing migrants with bags and backpacks being directed by Belarus forces away from the border.
Maciej Wasik, a Polish deputy interior minister, said he had received information that migrants were boarding buses provided by Belarus and leaving the area.
However, Border Guard spokeswoman, Anna Michalska said some of the migrants were seen taking wooden logs with them, raising questions about whether they might be moved to another spot along the frontier.
A large group of people from the Middle East has been stuck by a border crossing with Poland since Nov. 8, waiting and hoping to enter Europe. Most are fleeing conflict or despair at home and aim to reach Germany or other western European countries.
The West has accused Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies orchestrating the crisis.
Duda, the Polish president, stressed that Poland will not accept any international decisions regarding solutions for the border standoff that are taken without Poland’s participation. Duda was referring to recent talks, including Tuesday night, between Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, whose authority is questioned by the West.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert pointed to the plight of the migrants brought to the border by Belarus and stranded there.
In order to improve the humanitarian situation, he said, “it makes sense to also talk to those who have the opportunity to change this situation in Minsk, even when it comes to a ruler whose legitimacy, like all other European Member States, Germany does not recognize.”
Seibert said United Nations aid was beginning to reach migrants on the border and it was important to ensure humanitarian agencies gain permanent access.
Tensions spiked on Tuesday when Polish forces at the border used water cannon and tear gas against stone-throwing migrants. Warsaw accused the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of giving smoke grenades and other weapons to those trying to cross the frontier.
But on Wednesday Polish authorities said the situation had calmed down, and while they registered 161 attempts to cross Poland’s border illegally, the large migrant camp by the Kuznica crossing – which is now closed – had fewer people.
“The camp site near Kuznica is slowly emptying,” Wasik, the Polish deputy interior minister, said.
The information provided by officials is hard to verify due to restrictions journalists face in working on both sides of the border. A state of emergency in Poland is keeping journalists, human rights workers and others away from the border along a zone that is 3 kilometers (2 miles) deep.
A spokesman for the German Interior Ministry denied rumors that Berlin was planning to pick up the migrants and take them to Germany.
Steve Alter said the current developments show that the “road to Belarus is a dead end for most people who want to go to Germany. There are no plans to approve taking people in.”
Estonia, also affected by migrant movement but to a much lesser degree, said it would build a temporary razor wire barrier of up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) on its eastern border with Russia as a temporary solution to ensure border security.
This northernmost of the three Baltic states, with a population of 1.3 million, shares a 294-kilometer (183-mile) land border with Russia and a 340-kilometer border with Latvia but shares no border with Belarus.
Iraq has been appealing for its citizens to fly home, telling them the way into the EU is closed. The first flights are scheduled for Thursday.
The Belarusian state news agency Belta reported that migrants were being given shelter inside a logistics center at the border, giving them the chance after many days to sleep indoors rather than in tents outdoors.
Meanwhile, a Polish press organization said that people in Polish army uniforms handcuffed and beat three photojournalists who were working on Polish territory, but outside the no-entry emergency zone, on Tuesday.
Press Club Polska posted photos of bruises that the handcuffs left on the wrists of two of the photojournalists.
Poland’s Defense Ministry denied that violence was used but said the troops have a right to intervene when they deem it necessary at a time of high tension in the area. It said the photojournalists were masked and had no signs indicating they were media representatives.
Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Jari Tanner in Tallin, Estonia, and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed.