Belarus shelters hundreds of refugees after clashes at border with Poland

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Nov. 17 (UPI) — Polish and European Union officials were hopeful Wednesday that a mounting crisis at the Poland-Belarus border may soon de-escalate after officials on the Belarusian side began taking some of the refugees away from the area.

Thousands of refugees, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, have been living in camps near the border for several days — hoping to cross into Poland and the European Union. Polish troops have been blocking their entry.

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Polish and EU officials say Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko have intentionally stoked the crisis by encouraging the migrants to enter Poland through Belarus — a gambit, they say, to ratchet up pressure on the EU for economic sanctions leveled over various abuses by Minsk’s authoritarian regime.

Polish defense minister Mariusz Blaszczak said Wednesday that a dozen troops were injured in clashes between security forces and some migrants at the Kuznica border crossing.

Blaszczak said that the border tensions could last “for months, if not years,” according to Polish Radio.

He added that the fighting spread among smaller groups in the area overnight Tuesday.

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“The night wasn’t peaceful,” he said.

Belarusian state-run media said that Polish forces used water cannons that sprayed a yellow liquid that caused burning, and that some refugees felt like they were suffocating and sick.

Refugees queue to receive humanitarian aid at a camp along the Belarus-Poland border in the Grodno region of Belarus last Thursday. Photo by EPA-EFE

“We have witnessed how the Polish security forces on the Belarusian-Polish border used special means containing toxic irritating chemicals against refugees, including women and children,” said Igor Malyk, deputy head of the Belarusian Armed Forces’ chemical division, according to CNN.

There is a new sign that the crisis may de-escalate, after Belarusian officials moved thousands of refugees to a warehouse, or “logistics center,” not far from the border camp. Some of the migrants had been in the camp for many days in cold weather with little food and no change of clothing.

Yuri Karayev, an aide to Lukashenko, said that more than 1,000 migrants were moved to the warehouse, but about 800 were still in the border camp. He also said Belarusian officials hope to shut the camp down soon.

“That is our plan, that is our hope,” he said, according to The New York Times.

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Polish officials say Lukashenko encouraged the migrants to travel through Belarus to seek a new life in the European Union. Poland is an EU member, and Belarus is not. Two other EU member states that border Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia, have also condemned Lukashenko for the standoff.

Earlier this week, the EU said it will expand sanctions to businesses and groups that help refugees travel to the region, including airlines and travel agencies.

Former Polish President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa said on Wednesday that Moscow can resolve the crisis.

“If Russia wished, order could be restored immediately,” Walesa said, according to the state-run Russian TASS news agency.

“We know what a power it is, what power it has with regard to Belarus and beyond.”