Lukashenko, Merkel discuss Belarus-Poland border crisis in hopes it can be stopped

BIALYSTOK, Poland – German Chancellor Angela Merkel held talks with authoritarian Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday as part of a wave of European diplomatic efforts to end the migration crisis on Belarus’ border with the Poland that Lukashenko is accused of having orchestrated.

Lukashenko’s office claimed that in a call on Wednesday, he and Merkel had reached “some agreement” on the crisis and agreed to start immediate negotiations to resolve it. In a statement, the office said the two had agreed that negotiations would also focus on resolving the “refugees’ wish to travel to Germany.”

But Merkel’s spokeswoman did not confirm the same, saying only that during her appeal she “stressed the need to provide humanitarian care and return opportunities” to migrants trapped at the Belarusian border. .

The call with Merkel – the second in three days – nonetheless raised hopes that the border crisis could ease, as at least 2,000 migrants remained trapped in a nearby camp on Wednesday evening and likely hundreds. others in the surrounding forests.

Videos released by Belarusian state media show groups of migrants in the camp near the border dancing and clapping, supposedly following the call between Lukashenko and Merkel.

More than 2,000 migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have been stranded in a makeshift camp on the border with Poland in freezing temperatures for more than a week, since Belarusian forces escorted them there in what countries Europeans see it as an escalation of a campaign of several months. to use the weapons of migrants.

Lukashenko is accused of luring thousands of migrants to Belarus and channeling them to neighboring Poland and Lithuania to create a crisis on the European Union’s eastern border in retaliation for his support for the pro-democracy movement which has almost knocked him down last year.

Poland and Lithuania blocked the migrants, and Belarusian border troops prevented them from retreating, leaving hundreds trapped in the forests along the border without food or shelter, often for weeks. It is estimated that several thousand are currently in Belarus. At least 10 people have died, although activists believe the true toll is likely higher. Hundreds of migrants have been filmed in recent days in central Minsk.

Merkel’s appeal to Lukashenko followed heavy clashes on Tuesday, when Polish border guards fired water cannons at migrants who threw stones and missiles at them at a crossing point near the town of Kuznica . The Polish government, as well as some migrants in the camp, accused Belarusian authorities of inciting violence.

In recent days, there has been a flurry of European diplomatic activity in an attempt to resolve the crisis. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on Belarusian foreign minister, while Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron called on Lukashenko’s main supporter: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lukashenko’s office said on Wednesday that Merkel had forwarded a request from European Union President Ursula Von Der Leyen to allow international humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations, to start working with migrants.

Von Der Leyen wrote on Twitter on Wednesday: “Those trapped at the border must be repatriated”. The European Commission has also indicated that it has allocated 700,000 euros for aid to people trapped at the border.

Following the violence on Tuesday, Belarus moved hundreds of migrants to a warehouse near the border. But the vast majority of migrants remained in the makeshift camp, according to Polish authorities, living largely in the open air and huddled around the campfires.

Polish migrants and refugee charities recently accused Belarusian authorities of manipulating the migrants and spreading misinformation that they would soon be resettled in Germany and Poland.

The Polish government has said it is strongly opposed to Germany and the EU’s awareness of Lukashenko over its head. The Belarusian democratic opposition has also warned against this.

“Dancing with the dictator is dangerous,” said Franak Viacorka, an assistant to the main Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, after the announcement of the call with Merkel. “Appeasement leads to impunity. When it senses that the blackmail is working and that it can give it what it wants, it will escalate and claim more victims if necessary. Your humanity is just that. a weakness for him. “

Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets said on Tuesday that during the call with Merkel on Monday, Lukashenko called on Europe to recognize him as the legitimate president of Belarus and to lift the sanctions as conditions to put end of the migrant crisis.

There was no sign on Wednesday of such a concession. Lukashenko’s press office said during his call with Merkel that he had not raised the issue of his legitimacy and his sanctions because they were “below him”.

Activist groups and volunteer doctors continue to try to reach migrants who are sick and find themselves trapped in the forest on the Polish side. Polish border guards released a video on Wednesday showing large numbers of migrants packing up in Kuznica camp and walking somewhere, escorted by Belarusian border guards. It was not clear where they were taken.

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