Belarus agrees to more talks with EU on border crisis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says more humanitarian support needed for migrants trying to enter Poland

President Alexander Lukashenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have agreed that Minsk and the EU should discuss the migrant crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border, Belarus said on Wednesday.

It said they had spoken about the bloc providing humanitarian aid. Germany did not confirm any Belarus-EU talks.

Thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, are camped at the border in cold, wet conditions.

The West says Belarus has helped them to reach the frontier as retaliation for sanctions on Mr Lukashenko’s regime after its brutal suppression of protests against his rule.

Mr Lukashenko and his main ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, have rejected the accusations.

They criticised the EU for not taking in the migrants who want to cross into Poland.

Mr Lukashenko’s press service said the Belarusian leader and Mrs Merkel had “agreed that the problem as a whole will be brought up to the level of Belarus and the EU”.

“Relevant officials to be determined from both sides will immediately start negotiations to resolve the existing problems,” it said.

Mrs Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said she had “underlined the need to provide humanitarian care and return options for the affected people”.

The German leader said this could be achieved with help from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organisation for Migration, and in co-operation with the European Commission.

The call was the second between Mr Lukashenko and Mrs Merkel this week, and the Belarus strongman’s first conversation with a western leader since his regime stepped up its crackdown on opponents in 2019.

It took place after Mr Putin called on EU leaders to speak to Mr Lukashenko directly.

On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed contact between Belarus and the EU. He called it “very important”.

But Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller said the call was “not a good step” and appeared to be “an acceptance of his choice”, referring to Mr Lukashenko.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Seibert said it had been “useful” to speak with Minsk “to improve this humanitarian situation” even if the talks were with a leader whose legitimacy Germany and the EU do not recognise.

Poland said the crisis could last for months or even years, a day after its forces used tear gas and water cannons to deter stone-throwing migrants.

The border guard service said it had detected 161 illegal crossing attempts on Tuesday, including “two forceful attempts”.

On Wednesday, Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said there had been further attempts to cross the border overnight.

“We have to prepare for the fact that the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border will not be resolved quickly. We have to prepare for months or even years,” he told Poland’s Radio Jedynka.

The West has accused Belarus of luring thousands of migrants, many from Iraq and Syria, with the promise of an easy crossing into the EU, then forcing them to stay at the border.

Eastern EU members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have all refused to take in the migrants, many of whom have been stranded for weeks in forested borderlands.

After EU pressure from the bloc, several airlines have said they will stop flying would-be migrants to Belarus.

Iraq said it would start voluntary repatriations of its citizens from Belarus this week and the EU border agency, Frontex, is working with the Polish and Iraqi authorities to arrange charter flights from Poland.

Cyber-security researchers say they have uncovered evidence that Belarus has been involved in a hacking and disinformation campaign against Eastern European Nato members since 2016.

A report, published on Tuesday by the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, appears to be the first time Belarus has been blamed in the campaign known as Ghostwriter.

EU members have said they suspected involvement by Belarus’s close ally Russia, and Poland has directly accused Moscow of hacking government officials’ emails and leaking them online.

Mandiant said it had compelling forensic evidence that Belarus was involved but also that it had no direct proof of Russian participation. There was no immediate comment from Belarus or Russia.

Belarus migrant crisis - in pictures

Aid groups say at least 11 migrants have died on both sides of the border since the crisis began in the summer and have called for a humanitarian response to the problem.

On Tuesday, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, said the situation was “extremely dangerous”, after visiting the Polish side of the border.

“We need to find a way to de-escalate, to make sure the focus is really to stop the suffering,” she said.

On Wednesday, the Belarus Red Cross said about 1,000 migrants were being put up in what it called a “logistical centre” close to the Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint.

Another 800 were still in a makeshift camp near the border, Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported.

Volunteers and the military distributed hot porridge, sweets, water, tea and canned food in what appeared to be a large warehouse, images shown on Russian state TV showed.

The Belarusian Health Hinistry said six people, including four children, from the Bruzgi camp were being treated in hospital.

Updated: November 17th 2021, 11:27 PM