Belarus’ state-owned airline has announced it will bar people from Iraq, Syria and Yemen from boarding flights out of Turkey after pressure from Turkish authorities.
Thousands of desperate refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have been ferried to the Belarus-Poland border this week by Lukashenko’s security forces, prompting Poland to deploy 15,000 troops along the line.
The EU accuses Lukashenko of luring the migrants to Belarus and the country’s Belavia airline has been forced to deny it is involved in trafficking the desperate refugees as part of the ‘hybrid war.’
Belavia said citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, would be blocked from flights as of Friday ‘in accordance with the decision of competent authorities in Turkey.’
Kremlin-backed tyrant Lukashenko remains defiant in the face of increased sanctions from Brussels, threatening on Thursday to cut off Russian gas supplies to Europe from a major pipeline which runs through Belarus.
Russian nuclear bombers were flying over Belarus for a third day running on Friday as Putin threw his support behind Lukashenko.
Amid the chaos on Europe’s doorstep, the White House last night warned Brussels to brace for a Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
American intelligence sources have briefed their European counterparts of a possible Kremlin military operation in Ukraine’s east to annex territory similar to the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
A group of migrants were seen violently clashing with one and other as food supplies were handed out by an aid organisation on Thursday
A toddler is carried by its mother, swaddled in blankets to protect her from the harsh Belarusian November chill at the border
Kremlin-backed tyrant Lukashenko (pictured at the presidential palace in Minsk on Thursday) remains defiant in the face of increased sanctions from Brussels, threatening on Thursday to cut off Russian gas supplies to Europe from a major pipeline which runs through Belarus
The fears were sparked by a build-up of tens of thousands of Russian troops, tanks and artillery pieces close to the border, with satellite images revealing large camps of vehicles at Yelnya, Bryansk and Kursk.
Ukraine – which has been fighting a proxy-war against Russian-backed separatists in its eastern regions for years – has moved 8,500 more troops to the border in response.
Meanwhile, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have also been warning of the risk of conflict between Belarus – a close ally of Moscow – and Poland amid a migrant crisis on their shared border.
On Thursday, Lukashenko himself warned of the risk of a conflict and accused armed groups in the Donbas region of Ukraine of trying to ship weapons to the migrants on the Polish border in order to spark fighting.
‘They are Kurds, and the Kurds are militant,’ he said according to Polish newspaper Wyborcza. ‘When Poles beat them, cut them, torment them, etc., they become desperate. One rifle, one gun, and armed conflict is ready.’
European countries and the US condemned Belarus Thursday following an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has urged the EU to open diplomatic talks with Belarus to resolve the situation over some 4,000 migrants camped on the Polish border with Belarus in freezing temperatures.
Poland is refusing to allow the migrants to cross, accusing Minsk of luring them to Belarus to send across the border in revenge for sanctions.
After an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council on the crisis the US and European delegations condemned ‘the orchestrated instrumentalization of human beings whose lives and wellbeing have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus.’
Minsk is aiming at ‘destabilizing neighboring countries and the European Union’s external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations,’ they said in a joint statement.
The statement made no mention of Belarus ally Russia, which before the meeting rejected western allegations that it was working in conjunction with Minsk to send the migrants over the EU’s eastern border into Poland.
And in his second phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in as many days, Putin ‘spoke in favour of restoring contacts between EU states and Belarus in order to resolve this problem,’ the Kremlin said in a statement.
The EU has so far refused any direct contacts with Belarus’s strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who on Thursday warned that any new sanctions could see Minsk cut off natural gas transit to Europe.
The Yamal-Europe is one of three major Russian pipelines into Europe and represents around 20 per cent of Russia’s supplying capacity. Russia supplies around 50 per cent of the EU’s natural gas imports. Unlike much of Europe, the UK is not reliant on Russia for its gas supply. Although Britain imports most of its gas, less than 5 per cent comes from Russia (which Gazprom delivers through the BBL Pipeline from the Netherlands, as shown on map). Most of the gas Britain imports comes from Norway.
Migrants warm themselves on their camp at the Belarus-Polish border in the Grodno region, not far from the checkpoint Bruzgi, Belarus, on Thursday night
Amid the dispute, some 4,000 desperate refugees from war-torn countries are camped at the border in makeshift camps with limited supplies of food and water and temperatures plunging below freezing at night
The bloc severed contacts with Lukashenko and imposed sanctions after a heavy crackdown on the opposition following a disputed presidential election last year.
The EU is expected to decide next week to impose new sanctions on Belarus for human trafficking because of the migrant crisis.
Lukashenko said Thursday that Minsk ‘must respond’ if the EU takes new measures, raising the possibility of cutting off transit through a pipeline that carries Russian natural gas through Belarus to Poland and further into Europe.
‘We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,’ he said. ‘And what if we halt natural gas supplies?’
Belarussian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko was bluffing about cutting off gas and urged the EU to stand firm.
‘It would be more harmful for him, for Belarus, than for the European Union and I can suppose it’s bluffing,’ Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after claiming victory in last year’s vote, told AFP in Berlin.
‘We are grateful for the principled position of European countries that they are not going to communicate with (an) illegitimate person,’ she said.
Poland has deployed 15,000 troops along its border, put up a fence topped with barbed wire and approved construction of a wall on the frontier with Belarus.
In a statement released for Poland’s Independence Day on Thursday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country was facing a ‘new kind of war’ whose ‘ammunition is civilians’.
Migrants have been trying to cross the border for months but the crisis came to a head when hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.
They set up a camp on the border, sheltering in tents and burning wood from local forests to keep warm, blocked by Polish guards behind razor-wire.
A wailing child at the Belarusian-Poland border on Thursday. Belarus is accused of ‘weaponising’ migrants by flying them in from the Middle East and North Africa and taking them to the EU border
At least 10 migrants have died on the border in recent months, seven of them on the Polish side, according to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
Teams from the UN refugee agency, the International Organization for Migration and the Red Cross visited the camp on Thursday to check on conditions and deliver aid, including hygiene kits and diapers.
Journalists and charity workers have been banned from the immediate border area by Polish authorities under state of emergency rules.
Residents in the Polish town of Sokolka near the border said they were worried by the growing tensions but voiced support for the Polish government’s tough stance.
‘I’m afraid of the migrants getting through and what the consequences would be,’ said Henryk Lenkiewicz, a 67-year-old pensioner walking by a community noticeboard in the town centre.
Poland has accused Putin of masterminding the crisis, a claim the Kremlin has dismissed as ‘irresponsible’.
Moscow and Minsk have close economic, political and military ties and Russian air force planes have been flying patrols over Belarus this week, including two Tu-160 strategic bombers on Thursday that were accompanied by Belarusian Su-30S fighter jets.