Belarus moves migrants from Polish border to warehouse, easing crisis for now

MOSCOW — Belarus used buses Wednesday to move hundreds of migrants from the Polish border to a nearby warehouse, providing temporary shelter amid freezing temperatures and potentially easing a standoff with the European Union.

The Belarus decision comes a day after violence erupted along the border, where migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere have been stranded. Since months Belarus has provided routes to migrants to the EU. In retaliation to European sanctions, Belarus has opened borders.

Polish authorities used water cannons to push back the migrants, an escalation they said was overseen by Belarusian forces.

Videos posted by Poland’s Ministry of National Defense showed migrants on the Belarusian side hurling stones. Some migrants pulled aside barriers as Polish authorities played warnings that “force may be used” over loudspeakers.

The ministry said Belarusian forces had also given migrants stun grenades to throw at border guards.

State-owned news agency BelTA reported that more than 1,000 migrants spent the night at a logistics hub near the Kuznica border crossing. Social media posts showed people using mats to cover concrete floors. Others showed people sleeping on concrete floors with their blankets over.

It was unclear what comes next for the migrants and whether Belarusian authorities plan to bus them back to the border in the coming days. Iraq’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ahmed al-Sahaf, told Iraqi media this week that the country “will carry out a first flight Thursday for those who wish to return” from Belarus “voluntarily.”

Attempts at a diplomatic resolution have ramped up. E.U. on Monday agreed to impose new sanctions against Belarus, which it accuses of using vulnerable refugees and migrants to launch a “hybrid attack” on its borders since the summer.

E.U. The sanctions were imposed after the bloc claimed that Alexander Lukashenko, often called Europe’s last dictator by enemies, orchestrated the daring diversion of Ryanair aircraft in May to hold a Belarusian journalist. Last year, sanctions were also imposed on Belarusian officials for cracking down against peaceful protesters following a presidential election that Lukashenko claimed won. Widely, the vote was criticized as fraudulent.

In June, Lukashenko announced that Belarus would stop policing its borders with the E.U. Many air routes between Minsk and the Middle East have been temporarily suspended due to the border crisis.

In what some analysts saw as a small victory for Lukashenko, he spoke by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday, marking the first time a Western leader has had direct dialogue with Lukashenko since his disputed reelection last year.

Previously, Western leaders, including Merkel, have spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s biggest backer, in attempts to ease the crisis.

Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets told Estonian television on Tuesday that Lukashenko “wants the sanctions to be stopped, [and] to be recognized as head of state.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov that “the establishment of direct contact between E.U. It is vital that representatives of the Belarusian government are contacted. This is vital.”

Thousands of migrants are estimated to be trapped on the border. Many migrants are trapped at the Polish border.

That means that migrants can be trapped and pushed back and forth between the two countries for weeks, during which time they say they have little access to food and water. Polish police reported that they discovered the corpse of a young Syrian male in the woods close to the border.

Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

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