Poland-Belarus Border Crisis Turns Violent With Stones Thrown, Water Cannons Used

Polish forces on the border with Belarus said migrants attacked them Tuesday with stones and other weapons Belarusian soldiers provided them.

The violence marks an increase in what was already a tense situation between Belarus and its three neighboring European Union nations—Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

EU officials had previously accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's regime of purposefully bringing migrants to its borders to attempt to destabilize the 27-country bloc. Many of the migrants are from Middle Eastern countries, like Iraq and Syria, and looking to reach Western Europe.

Polish police spokesman Mariusz Ciarka told the Associated Press Belarusian services had equipped the migrants with gas and gas grenades and that the attack was controlled by Belarusian services with a drone. Polish police said one officer was seriously injured, likely with a skull fracture. Polish forces retaliated against the migrants using water cannons.

Polish Border Guard spokeswoman, Anna Michalska, added that out of the 2,000 migrants at the border, only about 100 were responsible for the attack.

In response to the Polish side's use of water cannons, Belarus' State Border Guard Committee spokesman Anton Bychkovsky told Belarus' state news agency Belta they would launch an investigation into the force used.

"These are considered violent actions against individuals who are on the territory of another country," Bychkovsky said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Poland, Belarus, border, water cannon
Polish border forces say they were attacked with stones by migrants at the border with Belarus and responded with a water cannon. Above, a man runs away from a water cannon near Grodno, Belarus, on November 16. Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA via AP

The Defense Ministry said Belarusian forces tried to destroy fencing along the countries' common border and the Interior Ministry posted video apparently showing migrants trying to tear down a fence.

Poland has taken a tough stand, reinforcing the border with riot police and troops, rolling out coils of razor wire and making plans to build a tall steel fence. The Polish approach has largely been met with approval from other EU nations who are keen to stop the arrival of another migration wave.

Yet Polish authorities have also been criticized by human rights groups and others for pushing migrants back across the border and not allowing them to apply for asylum.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday called the actions of Polish forces "absolutely unacceptable." Lavrov charged that Polish forces "violate all conceivable norms of international humanitarian law and other agreements of the international community."

Polish officials have often said that Russia bears some responsibility for the crisis at the border given Moscow's alliance with Belarus. The Russian government has denied responsibility.

There was no way to independently verify what was happening at the border because Poland's state of emergency has blocked reporters and human rights workers from the border area. In Belarus, journalists face severe restrictions on their ability to report.

At one point Tuesday, a Polish independent broadcaster, TVN24, was forced to rely on CNN in order to show a picture of the border not filtered through government authorities.

Poland's parliament is expected Tuesday to consider a bill that would regulate citizens' ability to move in the area of the border with Belarus after the state of emergency ends this month.

The EU has been putting pressure on airlines to stop transporting Syrians, Iraqis and others to Belarus—and the efforts were bringing changes.

According to a travel agency in Beirut, flights from the Lebanese capital to the Belarusian capital of Minsk had been stopped until further notice. By Tuesday afternoon, the single evening flight by Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, appeared as "cancelled" on Beirut's International Airport website.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is urging its citizens trapped at the Poland-Belarus border to return home.

Some 200 Iraqis who arrived in Belarus with the intention of crossing into the EU reached out to the Iraqi embassy in Russia and expressed a desire to return home, an embassy spokesman told the Interfax agency on Tuesday. The spokesman added that an evacuation flight will take place on Thursday from Minsk and Belarusian authorities have helped bring migrants back from the border.

On social media platforms used by Syrians and Iraqis to navigate the Belarus-Europe track, migrants posted pictures of large crowds gathering along the borders overnight. Some appeared undeterred by the restrictions, posting that they received support in terms of warm clothes and boots for the wet, cold weather. Some messages celebrated those who managed to cross despite the restrictions. A few messages urged migrants to head to the Lithuania-Belarus border.

Some of the posts described harsh treatment, including beatings, by Belarusian border guards, but most postings were a recognition that the migration route through Belarus may have come to an end.

"There is no more path to escape. By God, Minsk's route has ended. What are the new roads?" one person posted on a social media platform used by migrants to inquire about getting into Europe.

Belarus, Poland, border, migrants
Polish border forces say Belarusian forces supplied migrants with weapons to attack them with. Above, a man throws a stone during clashes with Polish border guards at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on November 16. Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA via AP