The European Union has agreed to step up sanctions against Belarus, which denounced as “absurd” accusations that it was driving a migrant crisis that has left thousands of people stranded in freezing forests on its borders with the EU.
The bloc is seeking to stop what it says is a policy by Belarus to push migrants towards it in revenge for earlier sanctions over a crackdown on protests last year against veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko’s contested re-election.
Migrants – mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan – began appearing on Belarus’ land borders with the EU this year, trying to cross into member states Lithuania, Latvia and Poland via routes not used before.
“This inhumane system of using refugees as tools to exert pressure on the European Union… has got worse over the last days,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, pledging to target those involved in what he called “human trafficking”.
The top EU diplomat, Josep Borrell, said a fifth package of sanctions had been agreed by EU foreign ministers and would be finalised in the coming days.
They would target airlines, travel agencies and individuals involved in “this illegal push of migrants,” he said.
Stranded on the Belarusian side of the border and increasingly desperate, migrants have tried to force makeshift fences in several places in recent days.
Poland, which has reported 5100 irregular attempts to cross the border so far in November, has been criticised for its treatment of those who make it through.
Latvia said on Monday it had deployed 3000 troops for a previously unannounced military exercise near the border.
It, Lithuania and Poland make up the eastern flank of the EU and the NATO military alliance.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on the phone with Lukashenko on Monday, Belarusian state television reported.
It said the conversation lasted about 50 minutes and the two leaders discussed how to prevent an escalation of the situation at the border.
They also discussed humanitarian support for the migrants stuck in the border area.
Middle East travel agencies working together with operators in Belarus provided tourist visas to thousands of people in recent months, a Reuters investigation indicated.
The EU executive said it was looking into whether other airlines should face sanctions after the bloc banned Belarus’ state-owned carrier Belavia from its skies and airports.
Germany’s Maas stressed Turkish Airlines had stayed away.
Ireland said EU aircraft leasing contracts with Belavia would also end.
The Belarusian foreign ministry said accusations the country’s officials had engineered the migrant crisis were “absurd” while Lukashenko said Belarus was trying to convince migrants to go home but that none of them wanted to return.
Belarus would retaliate against any new EU sanctions, he said.
The EU has been stepping up sanctions on Belarus for months.
Curbs already in place include blacklisting of Lukashenko, his son and 165 other Belarusian officials as well as restrictions on trade in potash, an important export.
The EU called on Lukashenko’s most powerful ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to put pressure on the government in Minsk to stop risking people’s lives in a geopolitical tug-of-war.
“It is obvious what Lukashenko’s regime and its allies want – to test unity of the western world,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said.
Lithuanian foreign minister asserts that some migrants fly to Belarus via Moscow and wants the EU to “make the Minsk airport a no-fly-zone”.
Russia has repeatedly denied any role in migrants’ travel to Belarus and Lithuania has not provided evidence of the travel via Russia.
The Kremlin, which has sent strategic bombers to patrol over Belarus, said Putin had spoken to Lukashenko on Sunday and that there were no plans to reroute gas flows away from Belarus.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also dismissed as “wrong” a US State Department statement that the Belarus border crisis was meant to distract attention from increased Russian military activity close to Ukraine.
The EU’s chief executive said coming days would be decisive.
At least eight people have died along the 200km-long land border between Poland and Belarus, including from cold and exhaustion.
The sparsely populated area of lakes, swamps and forests is becoming even more hostile to people trying to keep warm around bonfires through the cold November nights.
Polish border guards said on Monday several hundred people had gathered on the Belarusian side of a closed border crossing point in Kuznica and might try to get into Poland.
Maas and Borrell urged officials in Warsaw to allow humanitarian aid on the frontier, where Poland has deployed 20,000 police, border guards and soldiers.