Polish forces use water cannons in clash with migrants at Belarus border

Polish forces at the border with Belarus used water cannons and tear gas Tuesday against stone-throwing migrants, as Warsaw accused Belarusian authorities of giving smoke grenades and other weapons to those trying to cross the frontier.

Polish border forces attacked with stones in tense migration and political border crisis

Polish law enforcement officers use water cannons, as migrants carry a log toward a fence, at the Bruzgi-Kuźnica checkpoint on the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Tuesday. (Policja Podlaska/Handout/Reuters)

Polish forces at the border with Belarus used water cannons and tear gas Tuesday against stone-throwing migrants, as Warsaw accused Belarusian authorities of giving smoke grenades and other weapons to those trying to cross the frontier.

The events marked an escalation in the tense crisis on the European Union's eastern border, where the West has accused Belarusian President Alexander 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.

The Poland Border Guard agency posted video on Twitter showing water being sprayed across the border at a group of migrants who threw debris. The Defence Ministry also said tear gas was used against the attackers.

Polish authorities said nine of its forces were injured: seven policemen, one soldier and a female border guard.

WATCH | Protesters clash with Polish forces at border with Belarus: 

Protesters clash with security forces at Belarus-Poland border

6 months ago
Duration 0:44
Polish forces used water cannons to repel protesters hurling rocks and attempting to penetrate the barriers set up at the two countries' border. (Credit: Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/AP)

Some 2,000 migrants were at the frontier in makeshift camps in the freezing weather, but only about 100 were believed to be involved in attacking the Polish forces at the crossing near Kuźnica, said Border Guard spokesperson Anna Michalska. The crossing has been closed since last week.

Police spokesperson Mariusz Ciarka later said the migrants at the border crossing in Kuźnica had been "pacified." He added that the attackers had been given smoke grenades by the Belarusians and threw stones at the Polish police, with the events monitored by the Belarusian services using a drone. The Polish Defence Ministry also said Belarus gave some migrants flash-bang grenades.

Belarus's State Border Guard Committee and the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said they would investigate Poland's actions.

"These are considered violent actions against individuals who are on the territory of another country," committee spokesperson Anton Bychkovsky was quoted as saying by Belarus's state news agency Belta.

Belarus denies orchestrating crisis

Lukashenko on Tuesday again rejected accusations of engineering the crisis and said his government has deported about 5,000 illegal migrants from Belarus this fall.

"We're not collecting refugees all over the world and bringing them to Belarus, as Poland has informed the European Union. Those who come to Belarus legally, we accept here — the same way any other country would. Those who violate the law, even in the slightest, [we put] on a plane and send back [home]," he told a government meeting dedicated to the situation at the border.

Migrants settle for the night in the logistics centre of a checkpoint at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno on Tuesday. (Maxim Guchek/BelTA/The Associated Press)

In May, however, he had railed against the EU sanctions imposed on his country for its harsh crackdown on internal dissent, saying: "We were stopping migrants and drugs — now you will catch them and eat them yourself."

At Tuesday's meeting, Lukashenko said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed by phone Monday that neither Belarus nor the EU would benefit from an escalation of the border situation. He said he proposed a resolution but did not say what it was, adding that Merkel is discussing his proposal with other EU leaders.

Some of the migrants have children with them at the border in their desperate bid to reach the EU. Most are fleeing conflict, poverty and instability in the Middle East and elsewhere. At least 11 deaths have been reported in recent weeks as the weather has turned colder and they are trapped in the dank forest between the forces of the two countries.

Borders reinforced

While some have managed to get into the EU before Poland, Lithuania and Latvia bolstered their borders, passage appears to be much harder now.

Poland's Defence Ministry said Belarusian forces tried to destroy border fences, and the Interior Ministry posted video apparently showing migrants trying to tear one down. It said the migrants are using smoke grenades and similar weapons given to them by Belarusian troops who no longer seem to be trying to conceal their involvement.

More scenes from the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno on Tuesday:

Belarusian Red Cross employees hand over humanitarian aid to migrants gathering at the Belarusian border with Poland, near Grodno, on Tuesday. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/The Associated Press)
Migrants gather around a fire. The EU is calling for humanitarian aid as up to 4,000 migrants are stuck in makeshift camps in Belarus. (Maxim Guchek/BELTA/AFP/Getty Images)
A man runs away from a water cannon during clashes between migrants and Polish border guards. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/The Associated Press)
Polish servicemen are seen on the other side of a barbed wire fence during the clashes between migrants and Polish border guards. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA pool photo/The Associated Press)
Migrants attempting to cross into Poland from Belarus throw rocks at Polish security forces. (Leonid Shcheflov/BELTA/AFP/Getty Images)

Poland has taken a tough stand against the migrants' illegal entry, reinforcing the border with riot police and troops, rolling out razor wire and making plans to build a tall steel barrier. The Polish approach has largely met with approval from other EU nations, who want to stop the arrival of another wave of migration.

But Poland has also been criticized by human rights groups and others for pushing migrants back across the border and not allowing them to apply for asylum.

"It's very clear that if you see what's been happening to this group of people — that their own specific concerns, their particular dignity and their rights — have not been treated with the respect that they should have," said UN spokesperson Farhan Haq.

"And that is why we want them to be able to speak for themselves and to be heard. We don't want these people to be instrumentalized and used as pawns in the disputes involving the countries."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday called the actions of Polish forces "absolutely unacceptable." Lavrov charged that Polish forces "violate all conceivable norms of international humanitarian law and other agreements of the international community."

Warsaw says Moscow bears some responsibility for the crisis at the border, given its strong support for Belarus. The Russian government has denied responsibility.

Events at the border have been difficult to verify independently. Poland has imposed a state of emergency, which bars reporters and human rights workers from the area. In Belarus, journalists face severe restrictions on their ability to report.

Poland's parliament is expected to consider a bill to regulate citizens' ability to move in the border area after the state of emergency expires in December.

The EU has been pressuring airlines to stop transporting Syrians, Iraqis and others to Belarus, and the efforts were bringing changes. A travel agency in Beirut said flights from the Lebanese capital to Minsk had been stopped for now. A Tuesday evening flight by Belavia, the Belarusian carrier, was shown as cancelled on the airport's website.

Iraqis urged to return home

The Iraqi government also urged its citizens trapped at the border to return home.

About 200 Iraqis who arrived in Belarus to travel on to the EU have contacted the Iraqi Embassy in Russia, expressing a desire to return home, an embassy spokesperson told the Interfax agency.

The spokesperson said an evacuation flight will leave Thursday from Minsk, and Belarusian authorities have helped bring migrants back from the border.

Social media platforms used by Syrians and Iraqis to navigate the Belarus-Europe track carried photos showing large crowds along the border overnight. Some appeared undeterred by the restrictions, posting that they received support in terms of warm clothes and boots for the wet, cold weather. Some messages celebrated those who made it across, and a few urged migrants to head to the Belarus-Lithuania border.

Some of the posts described harsh treatment, including beatings, by Belarusian border guards, but most postings were a recognition that the migration route through Belarus may have come to an end.

"There is no more path to escape. By God, Minsk's route has ended. What are the new roads?" one person posted on a social media platform.