Russian President Vladimir Putin told the European Union on Thursday it needs to start talks with Belarus if it hopes to resolve a crisis over hundreds of migrants trapped on the border with Poland.
Concern is growing for the about 2,000 migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, who are living in a tent camp on the border between Belarus and Poland in near-freezing temperatures.
Poland is refusing to allow the migrants to cross, accusing Minsk of luring them to Belarus to send across the border in revenge for sanctions.
The EU has so far refused any direct contacts with Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who on Thursday warned that any new sanctions would be met with a response, including potentially cutting off natural gas transit to Europe.
In his second phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in as many days, Putin “spoke in favour of restoring contacts between EU states and Belarus in order to resolve this problem,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
Merkel had called Putin on Wednesday to ask him to “use his influence” on Lukashenko to end the crisis.
The EU cut off contacts with Lukashenko and imposed sanctions after a heavy crackdown on the opposition following a disputed presidential election last year.
The bloc is expected to decide next week to impose new sanctions for human trafficking because of the migrant crisis.
Lukashenko said Thursday that Minsk “must respond” if the EU takes new measures, raising the possibility of cutting off transit through a pipeline that carries Russian natural gas through Belarus to Poland and further into Europe.
“We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said. “And what if we halt natural gas supplies?”
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko was bluffing about cutting off gas and urged the EU to stand firm.
“It would be more harmful for him, for Belarus, than for the European Union and I can suppose it’s bluffing,” Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after claiming victory in last year’s vote, told AFP in Berlin.
“We are grateful for the principled position of European countries that they are not going to communicate with (an) illegitimate person,” she said.
The UN Security Council was to meet later Thursday for emergency talks on the crisis.
Poland has deployed 15,000 troops along the border, put up a fence topped with barbed wire and approved construction of a wall on the frontier with Belarus.
In a statement released for Poland’s Independence Day on Thursday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country was facing a “new kind of war” whose “ammunition is civilians”.
Migrants have been trying to cross the border for months but the crisis came to a head when hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.
They set up a camp on the border, sheltering in tents and burning wood from local forests to keep warm, blocked by Polish guards behind razor-wire.
At least 10 migrants have died on the border in recent months, seven of them on the Polish side, according to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
Teams from the UN refugee agency, the International Organization for Migration and the Red Cross visited the camp on Thursday to check on conditions and deliver aid, including hygiene kits and diapers.
“Priorities now are to prevent loss of life and move people to safer locations in Belarus,” UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said on Twitter.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters his country was pushing for an evacuation corridor from the border to the Belarusian city of Grodno, which has an airport that could be used to send people back to their home countries.
Journalists and charity workers have been banned from the immediate border area by Polish authorities under state of emergency rules.
Residents in the Polish town of Sokolka near the border said they were worried by the growing tensions but voiced support for the Polish government’s tough stance.
“I’m afraid of the migrants getting through and what the consequences would be,” said Henryk Lenkiewicz, a 67-year-old pensioner walking by a community noticeboard in the town centre.
Poland has accused Putin of masterminding the crisis, a claim the Kremlin has dismissed as “irresponsible”.
Moscow and Minsk have close economic, political and military ties and Russian air force planes have been flying patrols over Belarus this week, including two Tu-160 strategic bombers on Thursday that were accompanied by Belarusian Su-30S fighter jets.