UNITED NATIONS • European countries and the United States have condemned Belarus over a crisis that has seen hundreds of migrants trapped on its border with Poland, after an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council on the tense stand-off between Minsk and the EU.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin has urged the EU to start talks with diplomatically isolated Belarus over the roughly 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 with the aim of sending them across the border in revenge for sanctions.
After Thursday's emergency meeting at the UN Security Council on the crisis, the US and European delegations issued a joint statement condemning "the orchestrated instrumentalisation of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus".
Minsk is aiming at "destabilising neighbouring countries and the European Union's external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations", they said.
They described the Belarusian approach as "unacceptable", accused President Alexander Lukashenko of becoming a threat to regional stability, and called for a "strong international reaction" to hold Belarus accountable. They also pledged "to discuss further measures that we can take".
Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the US and Britain had raised the migrant crisis during the closed-door meeting of the 15-member body.
Their joint statement said they would "remain united and determined to protect the EU against these hybrid operations by Belarusian authorities".
It made no mention of Belarus ally Russia, which has rejected Western allegations that it was working in conjunction with Minsk to send the migrants over the EU's eastern border into Poland.
Earlier in the day, Russia's deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy had told reporters ahead of the meeting that he believed his Western council colleagues "have some kind of masochist inclinations because to raise this topic, which is a total shame for the EU, in front of us would be very brave".
When asked if Russia or Belarus was helping to move the migrants to the Polish border, Mr Polyanskiy said: "No, absolutely not."
He added that not all problems needed to be tackled by the Security Council. Russia is a council veto-power and so can shield Belarus from any possible attempts to impose UN sanctions.
In a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday, Mr Putin "spoke in favour of restoring contacts between EU states and Belarus in order to resolve this problem", the Kremlin said.
The EU has so far refused any direct contacts with Belarus' strongman leader Lukashenko, who has warned that any new sanctions could see Minsk cut off natural gas transit to Europe.
The bloc had severed contacts with Mr Lukashenko and imposed sanctions on Belarus after a heavy crackdown on the opposition following a disputed presidential election last year.
The EU is expected to decide next week to impose new sanctions on Belarus for human trafficking because of the migrant crisis.
Mr Lukashenko on Thursday said 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?"
Belarussian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Mr 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," said Mrs Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Berlin from Belarus after claiming victory in last year's vote. She added: "We are grateful for the principled position of European countries that they are not going to communicate with (an) illegitimate person."
Poland has deployed 15,000 troops along its border, put up a fence topped with barbed wire and approved construction of a wall on the frontier with Belarus.
Meanwhile, 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 Organisation for Migration, and the Red Cross visited the camp on Thursday to check on conditions and deliver aid, including hygiene kits and diapers.
Journalists and charity workers have been banned from the immediate border area by the 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 their government's tough stance.
"I'm afraid of the migrants getting through and what the consequences would be," said Mr Henryk Lenkiewicz, a 67-year-old pensioner walking by a community noticeboard in the town centre.
Poland has accused Mr 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.
The two allies yesterday said they were holding joint military drills near Belarus' western border with Poland.
Belarus' defence ministry said paratroopers from both countries were holding exercises due to "the build-up of military activity" near its border, while Moscow said the drills were part of a "surprise combat readiness check".
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS