Poland fears 'major incident' as migrants cross over from Belarus
Polish authorities accused Belarus of trying to spark a major confrontation on Monday and said they had mobilised additional soldiers as footage on social media showed hundreds of migrants walking towards the Polish border.
In one video, shared by the Belarusian blogging service NEXTA, migrants carrying rucksacks and wearing winter clothing were seen walking on the side of a highway.
Other videos showed large groups of migrants sitting by the road and being escorted by armed men dressed in khaki.
"Belarus wants to cause a major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties: according to media reports, they are preparing a major provocation near Kuznica Bialostocka, that there will be an attempt at a mass border crossing," Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk told Polish public radio.
The European Union has accused Belarus of encouraging migrants from the Middle East and Africa to cross into EU countries via Belarus, as a form of hybrid warfare in revenge for Western sanctions on Minsk over human rights abuses.
Neighbouring EU member Lithuania announced it was moving additional troops to the border to prepare for a possible surge in migrant crossings. Its government may follow in Poland's footsteps by declaring a state of emergency.
Poland has stationed more than 12,000 troops at the border, the defence minister said, while sharing aerial footage of migrants clustered on the Belarusian side. Latvia, which shares a border with Belarus, called the situation "alarming".
Exiled Belarusian leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged a strong response from the EU and United Nations.
"Belarus' regime escalates the border crisis – migrants are pushed to EU border by armed men," she tweeted. "The migrant smuggling, violence & ill-treatment must stop."
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's government has repeatedly denied manufacturing a migrant crisis, blaming the West for the crossings and treatment of migrants.
The Belarusian state border committee confirmed that many refugees were moving towards the Polish border, and said Warsaw was taking an "inhumane attitude".
The EU, the United States and Britain imposed sanctions on Belarus after Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on mass protests following a disputed election last year.
Lukashenko has defied opposition calls to resign, buttressed by money and diplomatic support from traditional ally Russia. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday defended Minsk's handling of the migrant issue, saying Belarus was taking all necessary measures to act legally.
Charities say migrants face gruelling conditions trying to cross the border from Belarus in freezing weather with a lack of food and medical attention.
Polish authorities said seven migrants have been found dead on Poland's side of the border, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.
Humanitarian groups accuse Poland's ruling nationalists of violating the international right to asylum by pushing migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Poland says its actions are legal.
Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Facebook that "the Polish border is not just a line on a map. The border is sacred - Polish blood has been spilled for it!".