Lukashenko Shrugs off EU Sanctions, Says It Will 'Defend Itself' Amid Border Spat

The European Union agreed Monday to put sanctions on airlines, travel agents and others accused of helping Belarus bring more migrants to its borders with EU countries.

This is the fifth set of sanctions the 27-country EU has put on Belarus, with others being set last year due to the highly disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko and a subsequent security crackdown on protesters.

In an Associated Press report, EU officials said they believe Lukashenko is waging a "hybrid attack" against them, encouraging migrants to cross the border in an attempt to destabilize the EU.

"Today's decision reflects the determination by the European Union to stand up to the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement to the AP. "We are pushing back on this inhuman and illegal practice."

Lukashenko told state news agency Belta that "we will defend ourselves" against the sanctions. He also denied that he was purposefully letting migrants in.

"These people, I must say, are very stubborn: no one wants to return," Lukashenko said. "And understandably so. They have nowhere to come back to. They have no place to live there, they know there's nothing to feed their children with. Moreover, some are simply afraid for their lives."

There are currently as many as 4,000 migrants at the Belarus-Poland border living in makeshift camps. Polish authorities said Belarusian services led a large group of migrants there, falsely promising they would be transported to Germany. At least nine have died in the freezing weather.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Belarus, EU, border, Kuznitsa
European Union foreign ministers are expected Monday to decide to expand sanctions against Belarus to include airlines, travel agents and individuals alleged to be helping to lure migrants to Europe as part of a "hybrid attack" against the bloc by President Alexander Lukashenko. Above, migrants gather in front of a barbed wire fence and Polish servicemen at the checkpoint "Kuznitsa" at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on November 15. Oksana Manchuk/BelTA pool photo via AP

Also Monday, the United Arab Emirates banned travelers from several Middle Eastern countries from boarding flights to Belarus, cutting off one of the last major air routes for would-be migrants there. Thousands of people from around the Middle East, many of them Iraqis and Syrians, have been trying to cross into the EU this year through a backdoor opened by non-EU member Belarus.

At the Belarus-Poland border, hundreds of migrants were gathered in the northeast by the recently closed crossing at Kuźnica, said a spokeswoman for the Polish Border Guard Agency, Anna Michalska.

"We are expecting an attempt at forceful crossing of the border," Michalska said. She said it is "worrying" that the migrants are under the supervision of Belarus forces, and expressed concern about possible attempts to provoke Polish troops.

Asked at the EU meeting in Brussels about the danger that more sanctions might only make things worse, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: "I don't have the impression that Belarus behaves constructively without sanctions. That wasn't the case in the past."

"We are far from the end of the spiral of sanctions," Maas added.

Belarus flag carrier Belavia is among the airlines likely to be hit, and Maas warned other companies to follow the example of Turkish Airlines by restricting flights to the Belarus capital.

"Those that don't must expect tough sanctions. The situation is so dramatic that I can no longer rule out the denial of overflight rights or landing permission in the European area," he said.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, "we need to make Minsk airport a no-fly zone." He said the EU must ensure that planes likely to be bringing in migrants bound for Europe "wouldn't land in Minsk, or actually any Belarusian airport. It is very crucial to do that."

The EU said that the authoritarian Belarusian regime has for months invited migrants to Minsk, many of them Iraqis and Syrians, with the promise of help to get them across the borders of the three countries, which form the eastern flank of both the 27-nation EU and NATO.

In an interview Sunday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he and his two Baltic counterparts are discussing whether to call for emergency consultations at the NATO military alliance.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said Monday this would not be ruled out "if the situation becomes even more complicated."

migrants, Belarus, border, Poland
There are currently as many as 4,000 migrants at the Belarus-Poland border. Above, migrants make their way to the checkpoint "Kuznitsa" at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on November 15. Oksana Manchuk/BelTA pool photo via AP