An NGO rescued two Syrian migrants after they crossed into Poland from Belarus, amid a migrant crisis characterised by human tragedy and escalating tensions at the border.
Poland has objected since the summer to the increasing number of refugees and migrants trying to enter the country and the EU accuses the Belarus regime of encouraging illegal migration to create instability in the West.
The rescue late on Sunday came a day after the body of a young Syrian man was found in a wooded area of Poland and followed a weekend of political denunciations and a worsening humanitarian emergency.
Witnesses said brothers Kader, 39 and Loas, 41, from Homs, had spent four days in the forest and were almost unconscious and too tired to speak when medics arrived to help them near the village of Topczykaly. The surname of the two brothers has not been released.
"We found two men in the woods, and they are in a really bad condition, and they couldn't communicate with us," said Agata Kolodziej from Polish charity Ocalenie Foundation.
"We couldn't really get any information out of them, except their names, so we decided to call an ambulance."
Videos released by Poland’s border guards and military on Monday showed a large crowd of migrants gathering at a shut border crossing between Poland and Belarus.
"More and more groups of migrants are being brought to the Kuznica border crossing by Belarusian forces," the defence ministry said on Twitter, as videos appeared to show hundreds of migrants in front of lines of Polish police and soldiers.
Footage posted on Twitter by the Polish Interior Ministry showed what appeared to be a water cannon stationed at the border, as a recorded message warned migrants that force could be used against them if they did not follow orders.
Activists in Poland told The National they had received messages from migrants telling them they had been soaked in water by Polish forces while approaching the border before being walk back into the woods in wet clothes.
NGO Grupa Granica said in a statement it had received information about attempts by Belarus to force migrants to use violence against Polish officers.
"Due to the risk of escalation of violence we want to remind all parties that migrants are not aggressors but hostages of Lukashenko's regime," it wrote.
The Belarusian State Border Guard Committee spokesman Anton Bychkovsky said the accusations were disinformation. "It does not correspond with the reality," he said.
Meanwhile, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia on Monday that the western military alliance was standing by Ukraine amid a large and unusual concentration of Russian troops on Ukraine's borders. US intelligence has suggested Russia's support for Belarus is a distraction and its true goal is Ukraine.
Stressing that the important thing now was to prevent situations from spiralling out of control, Mr Stoltenberg urged Russia to be transparent about military activities, to reduce tensions and prevent an escalation.
"We have to be clear-eyed, we need to be realistic about the challenges we face. And what we see is a significant, large Russian military build-up," Mr Stoltenberg told a news conference with Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels.
He said he did not want to speculate about Russia's intentions but added: "We see an unusual concentration of troops, and we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capabilities before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine."
Thousands of migrants have travelled to Belarus in recent months in the hope of crossing into the EU, through neighbouring EU member Poland, only to now find themselves trapped along the border in freezing conditions as border police on either side ping-pong them back.
Rejecting people who have fled without individually checking their asylum procedures is a breach of the Geneva Conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights, and current EU asylum laws.
Tensions soared last week as co-ordinated efforts to cross were rebuffed by Polish forces, with the Border Guard saying migrants were receiving instructions and equipment from Belarusian guards on how to break through.
At least nine people have died in this latest migrant crisis, mostly from suspected hypothermia as the continued pushback of people attempting to cross has left hundreds to camp out in freezing conditions with little food or water.
A media blackout imposed by Polish police along its border has limited journalists’ access to the area, but activists who are trying to help those stuck in the forest told The National that migrants have described walking past dead bodies as they make their way through the wooded areas, suggesting the death toll could be much higher.
A three-kilometre zone was imposed by Poland in early September and runs along the border. It is manned by border guards who force migrants and refugees back to Belarus. Human rights groups, journalists, and citizens not local to the border area are forbidden from accessing it.
Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have all been reinforcing their borders, erecting walls and fences in a bid to block migrants coming through.
After the UK foreign secretary Liz Truss wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that President Vladimir Putin should intervene in Belarus’s “carefully crafted crisis,” Russia responded with accusations of its own, saying “Britain is to blame” for the migrant crisis.
“The British invasion of Iraq was ‘carefully crafted,’” said Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. She said the UK had a “historical responsibility” for the plight of refugees, the majority of whom have come from Iraq, amassing on the borders of Eastern Europe.
“Britain bears a clear historical responsibility for everything that has happened in the region since - the deaths of Iraqis, the destruction of Iraqi statehood, the endless flows of refugees, the emergence of ISIS, the humanitarian disasters in this part of the world.
“Until London is held accountable for its crimes, its representatives have no right to point the finger at anyone.”
Ms Zakharova denied that Mr Putin bore any responsibility for the crisis despite his continued support for Belarus.
A fresh round of sanctions
The EU has claimed that President Alexander Lukashenko is deliberately pushing migrants across the border in response to economic sanctions placed on Belarus following last year’s opposition crackdown in the country and the forced grounding of a Ryanair flight to detain an activist.
Before a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, the EU’s foreign policy chief said the artificial flow of migrants into Belarus had been virtually halted, and that a fresh round of sanctions would be imposed on Minsk.
“Stopping the flow, stopping the flights is almost done,” Josep Borrell told reporters. “A new package of sanctions against Belarusian people responsible for what is happening in the country,” was being prepared, added Mr Borrell and would include “other people, airlines, travel agencies and everybody involved in this illegal push of migrants in our borders.”
New penalties could be announced — jointly with the US and possibly the UK — early next month.
“We will reinforce the sanctions for individuals and also hard economic sanctions are unavoidable,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. “We cannot avoid also addressing airlines,” Maas said, adding he could not rule out curtailing flying rights.
Among the proposals being considered by the foreign ministers is making Minsk and other Belarusian airports no-fly zones, said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.
Repatriation of migrants
Meanwhile Belarus says it is working on repatriating the several thousand migrants currently languishing in the no-man's-land between the two countries. President Lukashenko said on Monday that “active work” was under way to convince people to return home “but nobody wants to go back.”
He also said that Belarus could ferry the migrants via its state-run airline Belavia to Germany if Poland does not provide a "humanitarian corridor".
"We will send them to Munich by our own planes, if necessary," Mr Lukashenko said.
The Iraqi government said it was organising a repatriation flight this Thursday for its citizens stuck on the Poland-Belarus border on a "voluntary" basis.
Speaking on Iraqi television overnight on Sunday, Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Al Sahaf did not say how many people would be able to board the Minsk-Baghdad flight, but said Iraq had recorded 571 of its citizens stuck on the border who said they were ready to return "voluntarily".
Regular air links between Baghdad and Minsk have been suspended since August, while Belarusian diplomatic missions in Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, have been closed for more than a week.
European Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas is due to travel to Baghdad on Monday to discuss the migration crisis.
Poland calls on Nato to take "concrete steps"
Meanwhile Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Nato must take "concrete steps" to resolve the migrant crisis.
"It is not enough just for us to publicly express our concern — now we need concrete steps and the commitment of the entire alliance," Mr Morawiecki told Polish state-run news agency PAP.
As well as widening sanctions, the prime minister said the EU should jointly finance a border wall and that the possibility of completely closing the border with Belarus would be discussed when EU leaders meet on Monday.