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Belarus and Poland Trade Threats as Migrant Plight Worsens

Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

WARSAW — The standoff over migrants camped along the European Union’s eastern flank grew more precarious on Thursday, with political leaders on both sides of the razor wire fence using more belligerent language, while Polish news media reported that a 14-year-old boy had frozen to death on the Belarus side of the frontier.

Western leaders have accused Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic leader, of engineering the crisis in retribution after the European Union imposed economic sanctions on his country.

Belarussian authorities have granted thousands of migrants from the Middle East visas to visit, and then escorted them to the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia — E.U. member nations — under the watchful eyes of Belarusian authorities. Once there, they are stranded in bitter cold, prevented from entering the E.U. or from going back into Belarus.

“What we are dealing with is a new type of war,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland said on Thursday in a statement. “This is a war in which civilians and media messages are the ammunition.”

In Poland, the government’s hard-line policy and its refusal to allow aid workers or even church doctors near the frontier has played well with its right-wing base among Polish nationalists, who on Thursday were holding an annual march through the center of Warsaw to celebrate Independence Day.

Mr. Lukashenko reeled off threats to his country’s western neighbors even as the Kremlin, his main benefactor, said it was working to resolve the situation.

Mr. Lukashenko told government officials in a televised meeting on Thursday that he had agreed with Russia on patrols by nuclear-capable bombers of the country’s western borders. He also said he could shut down the flow of a major pipeline carrying natural gas from Russia to Western Europe via Belarus if the West escalated sanctions.



“We are warning Europe, and yet they threaten to close the border,” Mr. Lukashenko said, according to the Belarusian state news agency. “What if we close off the natural gas headed there? I would recommend the leadership of Poland, the Lithuanians and other brainless people to think before they speak.”

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia spoke with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for the second day in a row about the crisis, the Kremlin said, but he repeated his desire that European officials speak directly to their Belarusian counterparts — a nonstarter for many in the West who consider Mr. Lukashenko’s rule to be illegitimate.

With temperatures dropping below freezing along the Belarusian border with Poland and Lithuania, alarm is growing among aid workers that the number of deaths from exposure will increase sharply. So far, eight people have died, officials say, but the real number could be much higher.

With soldiers sealing off the border zone from news media and aid workers, the reported death of a 14-year-old Iraqi Kurd could not be confirmed. The boy’s body, according to a report by OKO.press, was taken away overnight by Belarusian security services.

Poland and Belarus have both barred journalists from entering the border area and are locked in an escalating information war, each blaming the other for a deepening crisis fed by inflammatory statements about the risk of armed conflict.

In a sign of escalating tension, Poland’s defense ministry on Thursday reported that its soldiers in the frontier area of Białowieza had fired warning shots into the air the previous day after “a group of several hundred migrants attempted to cross the border by force.” The migrants, the ministry said, threw objects at the soldiers and then tried to destroy a border fence.

Polish border guards said Thursday that 150 migrants had tried to cross the border from Belarus en masse overnight.

Polish officials warned of a possible attempt to “storm” the frontier Thursday evening, noting that Independence Day events scheduled across Poland had spread the security services thin, a situation that could encourage Belarus to push a new wave of people to the border.

EPA, via Shutterstock

Exhausted, freezing and exposed to the elements, Bayar Awat, his wife and infant daughter have been stuck on the Belarusian side of the Polish border for more than a week after leaving their homes in a desperate gambit to reach the European Union.

One of several thousand migrants from Iraq’s Kurdistan region at the Belarus border, Mr. Awat said that he knew Belarus was using migrants like him and his family as pawns in its own political battles, but that he was determined not to return to Iraq. He and others like him are hoping instead that the European Union will strike a deal for Poland to admit them.

“We became like a chicken in a cage in the hands of Belarusian and Polish police,” he said in a telephone interview, as children cried in the background. “One of them won’t let us go back to Minsk and the other won’t let us in. Belarus is playing with us any way they want.”

Western leaders have accused Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the autocratic president of Belarus, of orchestrating a migrant crisis on the European Union’s border out of anger at the bloc for imposing economic sanctions on his country.

They say that the manufactured crisis has turned Mr. Awat and the other migrants into human weapons in a political fight that has nothing to do with them.

“We are exhausted,” Mr. Awat said. “We don’t have sleeping bags or tents.”

He said he and his wife had taken off their winter coats to wrap their daughter, Katu, to shield her from the bitter cold and rain. As they trekked for two days through a deep forest to the Polish border, they abandoned their small tent and sleeping bags because of the weight, he said.

Mr. Awat, a laborer, said he had paid $3,400 for each family member to get there. That covered the costs of visas to Belarus obtained in the United Arab Emirates, airfare through Dubai and 14 nights accommodation in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. He said he was hoping to give his family a better life.

Minsk is the staging point for the trek by thousands of migrants, most of them Iraqi Kurds, to the borders with Poland and Lithuania, gateways to the European Union.

Mr. Awat and the five other Kurds the family traveled with paid thousands of dollars more to an agency in their hometown Sulaimaniya as a deposit to smugglers, who had promised to lead them across the Belarus border into Poland.

Now he and other migrants are sheltering at the edge of what they call “the jungle” — a deep forest where Mr. Awat said almost every step is hampered by undergrowth and fallen logs.

He said aid organizations were providing food and water and, aside from the cold, one of their biggest problems was charging phones. With only one battery-pack left in his small group, they were trying to conserve battery power.

“We make only one call a day to our families in Kurdistan,” he said. “We tell them we are OK. We are not dead yet.”

He said he could not return to Iraq because he feared that his life was in danger there because of a personal dispute.

Mr. Awat said Belarusian guards helped them reach the border with Poland by pointing out a path that bypassed the official Polish border crossing and emerged near a gap cut in the border fence.

But when his small group was caught alone, he said the Belarus police beat him and the other men with sticks and cables and insulted the women.

At the Polish border, Polish security forces pushed back what he said estimated to be about 2,000 people with tear gas and water cannons in the near-freezing temperatures.

He said he had hung back to protect his daughter. Now that they were at the Polish border, he said he believed Belarusian authorities would stop them from returning to Minsk.

Barzan Jabar and Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting.

Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

WARSAW — Tens of thousands of nationalist marchers took to the streets of the capital on Thursday to commemorate Poland’s independence, warning that the country was under assault by Middle Eastern migrants trying to cross its eastern border with Belarus.

An event traditionally dominated by fury at Polish liberals instead focused on the migrant standoff, which European officials say has been orchestrated by the leader of Belarus.

In a speech at the start of the march, Robert Bakiewicz, the head of a nationalist group that organized the event, drew cheers and applause when he praised Polish soldiers, border guards and police officers at the frontier who he said were defending the nation.

“Poland is under attack,” he said. “Today it is the duty of every Polish patriot to support the state.”

In previous years, the march has been marked by violence and xenophobia; in 2017, right-wing demonstrators clashed with the police and chanted, “Pure Poland, white Poland,” and “Refugees, get out!” This year, organizers and the government seemed eager to avoid street fighting at a time of escalating international tensions.

Gathered in a sea of red and white Polish flags, demonstrators started their march by lighting red flares and singing the national anthem. A small group of young men trampled a rainbow flag outside a subway station, near stalls selling books denying the Holocaust and celebrating fascist leaders like Francisco Franco of Spain.

But while the crowd included burly young men who raised their arms in fascist-like salutes to chants of “Hail, Great Poland” and another group shouting “Border guards, open fire,” it also featured peaceable young couples pushing baby strollers.

“We are here to celebrate Polish independence. We just want to teach patriotism to our kids,” said Monika Arbaszewska, 38, a mother of two, who joined the rally with her husband, Szymon.

Nov. 11 is the anniversary of Poland regaining its sovereignty in 1918, more than a century after being swallowed by its neighbors. Commemorations are meant to evoke unity, but in recent years, they have more often served to underscore the divisions tearing at the nation.

This year’s march comes as thousands of migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere have gathered just over the border with Belarus, trying to make their way into Poland, an E.U. nation where anti-immigrant sentiment runs high.

Opponents of Poland’s right-wing government called off plans for their own Independence Day rally in the same place as the nationalist gathering, which had raised fears of clashes in the streets. Instead, they held a small counterdemonstration in another part of Warsaw under the slogan “Yes to Independence, No to Fascism.”

Polish leaders have used the border standoff to rally support in the E.U., casting Poland as its defender.

But the government’s rightward moves have put it bitterly at odds with the E.U. for years, over issues like judicial independence and L.G.B.T. rights, and those tensions persist.

Mr. Bakiewicz, in his speech, railed against what he called “internal collaborators,” declaring that “there is a war going on, not only the one on the border, but also the war with Germany and the European Union.” He denounced plans to cut carbon emissions as “green devilry” cooked up by ecologists and Germans to keep down Poland, a major coal producer.

One protester set fire to a picture of Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and top E.U. executive who is now Poland’s main opposition leader, and others paraded a banner showing St. George thrusting a sword through a dragon draped in the blue E.U. flag. As the sun set on a gloriously clear day, however, there were no reports of serious violence.

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.

It was pitch black before dawn on Thursday, and only the howling winter wind pierced the silence in the primeval forest near Poland’s border with Belarus. Guided to this location by a pin on a Google map, a group of humanitarian workers was supposed to meet migrants in desperate need of assistance.

But nothing. Only darkness and silence. Someone in the group put on night vision goggles.

“They are here,” he said. Just a few feet away, a group of eight people sat huddled and still.

This is what the coalition of humanitarian organizations working together on the Polish side of the border calls an “intervention.”

A group of about 14 organizations monitoring the situation on the border, Grupa Granica, has banded together to help.

“We have a duty as a state to provide assistance to people exploited by the Lukashenka regime,” the groups said in a statement. “In the face of the real threat of an escalation of the situation on the border,” they appealed to all parties to respect the basic principles of humanitarianism.

For months, as the crisis has escalated, this network of nongovernmental organizations has been doing what it can to bring food, shelter, medicine and clothes to those in need.

While much of the international focus in recent days has been on the area around Kuznica — a border crossing where thousands of migrants hoping to make it to the European Union have been camped and in limbo — the Belarus-Poland border is a vast one that stretches more than 250 miles.

The Polish authorities have restricted access to all but local residents living within two miles of the border. But the forests stretch well past that zone, and it is in those woods that many who have made it past the guards and the razor wire are hiding and waiting for an opportunity to move on.

The group of eight waiting in the predawn hours on Thursday included people from Syria and Yemen. They had been in the forest for months. Both the migrants and the aid workers asked that their names not be used for fear of coming under scrutiny of the authorities.

The path for migrants who make it across the border is a fraught one. While the rolling farmlands and dense forests are not very populated, eluding detection on foot for miles is unlikely.

So they hide and wait for people paid to take them further west, outside Poland, where they can then seek asylum, according to migrants and those familiar with their situation.

Along mostly empty streets, Polish police cars sit parked, waiting to pull over vans and other vehicles. If they find people who have crossed illegally, they send them back to Belarus, where many will wait and then try again.

Pool photo by Shamil Zhumatov

As the border crisis along the European Union’s eastern flank has intensified, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus has once again turned to his most reliable patron and supporter: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The two have met in person at least five times this year, and Moscow has been steadfast despite a storm of criticism from Western leaders.

Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, said on Thursday that Russia was doing all it could to resolve the situation, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. But he also warned of the possibility of a military escalation, given the presence of troops on both sides.

“Indeed, the rise in tensions on this border where highly armed people — meaning the military — are present on both sides is a matter of utmost concern to all sober-thinking people in Europe,” Mr. Peskov told reporters.

But it was not clear what, if anything, Russia was doing to resolve a crisis that has escalated the tensions between Mr. Lukashenko and the European Union to their highest level yet since the Belarusian strongman claimed a victory in a broadly disputed election last year.

To Mr. Putin, the crisis appears to be an opportunity to force European governments — many of which claim that Mr. Lukashenko is an illegitimate leader — to negotiate directly with the Belarusian ruler. On Thursday, Mr. Putin held that line in his second phone call in recent days with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has been Europe’s primary interlocutor with the Russian president in times of crisis.

“The importance of settling the acute migration crisis that has emerged as fast as possible in accordance with international humanitarian norms was confirmed,” the Kremlin said of the phone call. “Vladimir Putin spoke in favor of resuming contacts between E.U. countries and Belarus with the goal of solving this problem.”

Underscoring Russia’s support, Russian strategic bombers conducted exercises with Belarusian forces for the second day in a row on Thursday, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said.

“We must constantly monitor the situation on the border,” Mr. Lukashenko said. “Yes, these are bombers that are able to carry nuclear weapons. But we have no other choice.”

Wojtek Radwanski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The deep forests that straddle the European Union’s borders with Belarus have become the stage for an international conflict as thousands of migrants struggle to make their way to the E.U. through the trees.

Deeper still, however, is the secrecy that shrouds the border zone, an area that Poland and Lithuania, both E.U. members, and Belarus have all declared off-limits to news media and aid workers. The information blockade has made it impossible to assess the veracity of the often inflammatory government statements about what is really happening along the border.

Poland’s nationalist governing party, Law and Justice, with a long history of demonizing migrants and hostility to critical media, has even prohibited doctors working for the Catholic Church, a close ally of the government, from visiting the area to assist cold and hungry migrants.

There is much the three nations might want to hide. E.U. officials say Belarus is manufacturing a crisis, allowing in people from the Middle East and then funneling them to the borders. There have been reports from migrants and humanitarian groups of people crossing the borders, only to be physically abused and forced back into Belarus.

At least eight migrants who sneaked into Poland, where temperatures have fallen below zero as winter approaches, have died from exposure, according to official reports. Aid workers say the real number may be much higher but they cannot enter the border area without getting arrested.

Warning of an “intolerable situation,” the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, on Wednesday called for immediate access to the area for journalists, aid workers and lawyers.

This appeal has so far fallen on deaf ears. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said that the presence of journalists along the border would only “intensify” what he called “provocative actions” by Belarus. He said the government was thinking about establishing a media center close to the border but gave no details, and warned that journalists risked falling prey to fake news spread by Belarus and its ally Russia.

“In a hybrid war, the fight is primarily in the field of information,” Mr. Morawiecki said after a meeting in Warsaw with Charles Michel, the president of the European Council.

Two Polish journalists working for an online news service were charged with a criminal offense in September for entering the border area. Tight restrictions on media access imposed by Poland, a democracy with a vibrant press, has allowed Belarus and its autocratic ruler, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to pose as a defender of media freedom.

In a statement late Wednesday, the Ministry of Information in Belarus said it was ready “to assist in inviting employees of the Polish media to work on the Belarusian side of the border.”

Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

[Follow live news updates on the crisis at the Poland and Belarus border.]

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — Before the Belarus police pushed Hajar, 37, across the border into Lithuania this week, they punched him in the head, he said. But that was just the start of his ordeal.

On the Lithuanian side, the police called for a group of commandos who he said took him and his friends away and started hitting them with sticks and plastic cables and shocking them with stun guns. In a video call from Minsk, he pulled up his shirt to show deep bruises on his side and back.

“They said ‘You don’t have the right to come here to our country,’” he said, speaking in Kurdish through an interpreter. “They said ‘You make our country dirty.’”

Hajar, an Iraqi Kurd who is trying desperately to get to the European Union, asked that his surname not be published for fear of repercussions from Belarusian and Lithuanian authorities.

He said the commandos, clad in black and wearing masks, took the migrants’ phones and warned that they had taken video of the Kurds, who would receive a much worse beating if they returned.

Hajar limped back across the border and made his way back to Minsk to tend to his wounds in a budget hotel which he said was charging migrants $100 a night in exchange for not reporting them to the authorities for their expired visas.

Two days later, he said, the Belarus police again forced them to go to the border but he was too afraid to cross.

Hajar, who said he had spent $6,000 getting to Turkey and then Belarus, said he was fleeing a tribal dispute in Iraq that put his life in danger. A single father, he hopes to get to Britain to earn money to send back to his 14-year-old son and his sick mother.

He said he plans to try to cross the border again.

“I just want to cross even if I lose my life,” he said.

In the city of Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Reben Sirwan, a journalist, said he too had gone to Belarus, where he was shocked and beaten by Belarusian police officers as they deported him last week.

“On the stairs of the plane they hit me and took my phone because I was doing live reports,” he said.

Mr. Sirwan, 29, said he had received threats over his work in Kurdistan, and planned to apply for asylum in Belarus. But rather than hear his claim, the Belarusian authorities, he said, put him on a plane — not to Iraq but to Syria. In Syria, the police held him for four days before letting him return to Iraq, he said.

“Belarus, Poland and Lithuania are playing with people,” he said. “They move them up, down, left and right. They hurt them, beat them, steal their phones and take their money.”

Sangar Khaleel and Barzan Jabar contributed reporting.

The New York Times

European Union officials said they were analyzing air traffic to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, as potential evidence that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus was effectively orchestrating a flow of migrants toward E.U. countries.

The timetable for the Minsk airport, effective Oct. 31, shows at least 47 scheduled flights per week from Middle Eastern locations, compared with no more than 23 flights per week on its previous schedule. The additional flights include a new daily route from Damascus on an Airbus A320 operated by the Syrian airline Cham Wings.

Travel agencies in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where many of the migrants come from, have been offering packages that include visas to Belarus and airfare either through Turkey or the United Arab Emirates for about $3,000.

Peter Stano, a spokesman for the E.U.’s executive arm, said officials were monitoring flights from around two dozen countries that were ferrying migrants into Minsk — including Morocco, Syria, South Africa, Somalia, India, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Libya and Yemen. The European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, said the E.U. was stepping up “outreach with partner countries” to prevent migrants from coming to Belarus in the first place.

“Our urgent priority is to turn off the supply coming into Minsk airport,” she said in a tweet.

Travel agents in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq say they have contracts with agencies that charge about $1,300 per visa from Belarus diplomatic missions in the U.A.E. and Turkey.

“We have more business now from people leaving for emigration than for vacations,” said Sana Jamal, a travel agent in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah.

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