By LORNE COOK, BRUSSELS (AP):- The European Union on Monday ratcheted up pressure on Belarus by agreeing to slap sanctions on airlines accused of helping President Alexander Lukashenko to wage a “hybrid attack” against the bloc using migrants, as tensions mounted on the Polish and Lithuanian borders.
Up to 4,000 migrants are stuck in makeshift camps in freezing weather after Poland reinforced its border with Belarus with 15,000 soldiers, in addition to border guards and police. At least nine migrants have died. Many of them want to head further west, often to Germany.
Polish authorities said Monday that Belarusian services had led a large group to a border crossing with Poland and made them believe they would be transported by bus to Germany. Polish police say they are broadcasting messages across the border telling the migrants that “they have been deceived.”
Meanwhile, Lithuanian officials said Monday it was seeing a rising number of attempts by migrants to cross its border from Belarus, but the situation on the border was under control.
“They try entering from many other places which previously were not used,” Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told reporters.
The 27-country EU has already imposed four sets of sanctions on Belarus authorities and senior officials over the disputed election in August last year that returned Lukashenko to office and the security crackdown on peaceful protesters that followed.
The EU is preparing a fifth lot, and on Monday the bloc’s foreign ministers extended the scope of those measures to add airlines, travel agents and others accused of helping to bring migrants to Minsk.
“Today’s decision reflects the determination by the European Union to stand up to the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes. We are pushing back on this inhuman and illegal practice,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
EU headquarters said the bloc will now be able to target individuals and entities organizing or contributing to activities by the Lukashenko regime that facilitate illegal crossing of the EU’s external borders. A list of those to be hit by the asset freezes and travel bans is expected to be finalized in coming days.
The EU believes Lukashenko began luring migrants to Belarus in recent months as part of a retaliatory attack meant to destabilize the bloc. The EU has been deeply divided over how to manage migrants since well over 1 million people entered in 2015.
Also Monday, the United Arab Emirates banned travelers from several Middle Eastern countries from boarding flights to Belarus, cutting off one of the last major air routes for would-be migrants there. Thousands of people from around the Middle East, many of them Iraqis and Syrians, have been trying to cross into the EU this year through a backdoor opened by non-EU member Belarus.
Lukashenko brushed aside the threat of fresh EU measures.
“We will defend ourselves. That’s it, there’s nowhere to retreat further,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency Belta.
Lukashenko also denied that his government has organized the migrant influx, saying that “it isn’t worth the effort,” and he insisted that the people involved are resisting Belarusian efforts to encourage them to return to their home countries.
“These people, I must say, are very stubborn: no one wants to return. And understandably so: They have nowhere to come back to. They have no place to live there, they know there’s nothing to feed their children with. Moreover, some are simply afraid for their lives,” he said.
At the Belarus-Poland border, hundreds of migrants were gathered in the northeast by the recently closed crossing at Kuźnica, said a spokeswoman for the Polish Border Guard agency, Anna Michalska.
“We are expecting an attempt at forceful crossing of the border,” Michalska said. She said it is “worrying” that the migrants are under the supervision of Belarus forces, and expressed concern about possible attempts to provoke Polish troops.
Asked at the EU meeting in Brussels about the danger that more sanctions might only make things worse, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “I don’t have the impression that Belarus behaves constructively without sanctions. That wasn’t the case in the past.”
“We are far from the end of the spiral of sanctions,” Maas added.
Belarus flag carrier Belavia is among the airlines likely to be hit, and Maas warned other companies to follow the example of Turkish Airlines by restricting flights to the Belarus capital.
“Those that don’t must expect tough sanctions. The situation is so dramatic that I can no longer rule out the denial of overflight rights or landing permission in the European area,” he said.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said “we need to make Minsk airport a no-fly zone.” He said the EU must ensure that planes likely to be bringing in migrants bound for Europe “wouldn’t land in Minsk, or actually any Belarusian airport. It is very crucial to do that.”
The EU says that the authoritarian Belarusian regime has for months invited migrants to Minsk, many of them Iraqis and Syrians, with the promise of help to get them across the borders of the three countries, which form the eastern flank of both the 27-nation EU and NATO.
In an interview Sunday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he and his two Baltic counterparts are discussing whether to call for emergency consultations at the NATO military alliance.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said Monday this would not be ruled out “if the situation becomes even more complicated.”
Monika Scislowska and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
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