Polish forces use water cannons on Belarus border as migrants hurl stones

BERLIN — Polish authorities used water cannons Tuesday to push back migrants trying to cross the country’s border with Belarus, an escalation they said was overseen by Belarusian forces as part of a deepening battle with the European Union.

Videos posted by Poland’s Ministry of National Defense showed Polish forces spraying water on stone-throwing migrants on the Belarusian side of the Kuznica border crossing. Some migrants pulled aside barbed-wire barriers as Polish authorities played warnings that “force may be used” over loudspeakers. A BBC reporter at the scene said tear gas also was used.

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

“Today’s attack is being carried out under the strict control of the officers of Belarusian state services,” the ministry tweeted, showing a video of a uniformed Belarusian guard looking on as men threw projectiles at the fence. 

The violence, which had died down by midafternoon, came just a day after the E.U. agreed to impose new sanctions against Belarus, which it accuses of using vulnerable refugees and migrants to launch a “hybrid attack” on its borders.

Facing earlier sanctions after the audacious diversion of a European plane in May to detain a Belarusian journalist, Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, has eased the path for Middle Easterners and others to enter the country and try their luck at entering the E.U. through its borders.

On Monday, Polish authorities said that Belarusian guards had gathered migrants from along the border — including from a makeshift camp set up last week — and moved them to the official border crossing point at Kuznica, which is currently closed.

Polish authorities have claimed that Belarusian forces have orchestrated the movement of migrants up and down the border fence. The Belarusian border guards said that Polish video showing its soldiers walking refugees along the fence “distorts reality” and “misrepresents” events. They claimed their soldiers were escorting migrants “in order to avoid provocations from the Polish side.”

Thousands of migrants are estimated to be trapped on the border, where temperatures drop below freezing at night. Those that make it across into Poland and are caught are often deported even if they claim asylum, a practice legalized by Poland last month even though it runs contrary to international law.

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 said they found the body of a young Syrian man in the woods near the border last week.

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