WARSAW, Poland — Hundreds if not thousands of migrants sought to storm the border from Belarus into Poland on Monday, cutting razor wire defenses and using branches to try and climb over them. The siege escalated a crisis along the European Union’s eastern border that has been simmering for months.
Poland’s government said it had rebuffed an illegal “invasion” and claimed the situation was under control. The Defense Ministry posted a video showing an armed Polish officer using a chemical spray through a fence at men who were trying to cut the razor wire. Some migrants threw objects at police.
Video footage from Belarusian media showed people using long wooden poles or branches to try to get past a border fence as police helicopters circled overhead.
“A coordinated attempt to massively enter the territory of the Republic of Poland by migrants used by Belarus for the hybrid attacks against Poland has just begun,” a spokesman for Poland’s security forces, Stanislaw Zaryn, said in a statement.
Noting that it’s also NATO’s eastern border, Zaryn stressed that the “large groups of migrants … are fully controlled by the Belarusian security services and army.” He accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of acting to destabilize Poland and other EU countries to pressure the bloc into dropping its sanctions on Minsk. Those sanctions were put into place after Belarus cracked down brutally on democracy protests.
Piotr Mueller, Poland’s government spokesperson, said 3,000 to 4,000 migrants were next to the Polish border on the Belarusian side.
There was no way to independently verify what was happening. Journalists have limited ability to operate in Belarus and a state of emergency in Poland is keeping reporters and human rights workers out of the border area.
The massing of people at the border appeared to rev up the crisis that has being going on for months in which the autocratic regime of Belarus has encouraged migrants from the Mideast and elsewhere to illegally enter the European Union, at first through Lithuania and Latvia and now primarily through Poland.
Anton Bychkovsky, spokesman for Belarus’ State Border Guard Committee, told The Associated Press that the migrants at the border are seeking to “exercise their right to apply for refugee status in the EU.” Bychkovsky insisted they “are not a security threat.”
Poland says they can apply for refugee status at Poland’s diplomatic missions, including in Belarus.
Germany calls Belarusian regime “a human trafficker”
But the massive group was viewed as a threat by Poland and other European countries, including Germany — the main destination for many. Steffen Seibert, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, told reporters Monday that “the Belarusian regime is acting as a human trafficker.”
“It instrumentalizes refugees and migrants in a way that’s politically and from a humanitarian point of view condemnable. And Europe will make a united stand against this continuous hybrid attack,” Seibert said.
The EU said it hoped that Poland would finally accept help from Frontex, the bloc’s border agency, a step Poland’s ruling nationalists have so far refused to do. Frontex would not comment on the border situation.
In Brussels, a spokesman for the European Commission, Adalbert Jahnz, called the siege “a continuation of the desperate attempt by the Lukashenko regime to use people as pawns to destabilize the European Union.”
Bix Aliu, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Warsaw, tweeted that Lukashenko’s regime was risking the migrants’ lives and “using them to escalate the border crisis and provoke Poland.”
“Hostile actions by Belarus are exacerbating the situation on the border with the EU and NATO dangerously and must end immediately,” he said.
Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on Twitter that more than 12,000 soldiers have been deployed to the border and a volunteer Territorial Defense force was put on alert. He also posted video footage of what appeared to be a large group of migrants in Belarus, near Kuznica, in northeastern Poland.
Polish ministers held an emergency meeting on the border crisis, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki writing on Facebook that Poland’s border is “sacred” and “not just a line on the map.”
Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Pawel Jablonski held talks with Iraqi charge d’affaires Hussein al-Safi on ways of ending the migration crisis and thanked Iraq for having Belarus close its consulates in Baghdad and Irbil that were giving out tourist visas to migrants.
Meanwhile, in Poland’s EU neighbor Lithuania, officials were preparing for the possibility of a similar incursion, with the Interior Ministry proposing to declare an emergency situation.
“We are getting ready for all possible scenarios,” said Rustamas Liubajevas, the head of Lithuania’s border guards.
Since the summer, Poland and Lithuania have seen thousands of migrants from the Mideast and Africa trying to cross into the EU. Poland has sought to block the attempts or send those they catch back into Belarus.
Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich told the AP that the Moscow-backed Lukashenko regime seemed to be trying to use the migrants “to scare” the EU.
“The largest attack of migrants on EU borders is taking place three days after Belarus and Russia signed a new agreement on military cooperation. The Kremlin is at least aware of the details of what’s happening,” Karbalevich said.