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EU accuses Lukashenko regime of ‘gangster’ behaviour over migrant crisis

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The EU has accused autocratic Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of “gangster” behaviour for luring migrants to Europe under “false pretences” and encouraging them to enter the bloc illegally.

Tens of thousands of migrants have attempted to enter the EU via Belarus in recent months, in a surge that officials believe is orchestrated by Minsk in retaliation for the bloc’s support for Belarus’s opposition.

The crisis, which has smouldered since the summer, erupted on Monday after a group of hundreds of migrants used tree trunks, spades and shears to try and force their way into Poland near the border village of Kuznica, where they were repelled by Polish security forces.

“The way Lukashenko’s regime is conducting this operation is very inhuman, unacceptable and actually illegal,” EU commission spokesperson Peter Stano said on Tuesday. “The Lukashenko regime is starting to behave as a gangster regime.”

Poland has deployed thousands of troops to its eastern frontier to reinforce the border guard and on Tuesday morning it closed the check point at Kuznica, one of three crossings into Belarus. Officials estimate that there are currently between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants at the border.

Lithuania on Tuesday declared a state of emergency at its own border with Belarus to prevent migrants from entering.

Warsaw has received backing from across the EU, with commission president Ursula von der Leyen calling for member states to impose further sanctions on Lukashenko. Germany’s interior minister Horst Seehofer has urged the bloc to help Poland cope with the surge in migrants.

“What is happening now [is] a hybrid threat,” Seehofer said in an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper. “We want controlled migration to Europe, not politically organised migration.”

Commission officials are also considering imposing sanctions on airlines from countries such as Turkey and Russia that they believe are involved in “migrant trafficking” to Belarus.

However, Lukashenko appeared to be emboldened by support from his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after talking with him on the phone on Tuesday and sending his foreign minister for two days of talks in Moscow.

Russian support was crucial for Lukashenko in staving off a huge wave of protests against his dubious re-election last summer. In return, Moscow has pushed Minsk to adopt a number of economic agreements that bind the two countries closer together, several of which the two presidents signed last week.

In an interview broadcast on Belarusian state media on Tuesday, Lukashenko said the EU was attempting to divert attention from its own domestic problems by blaming Belarus for the crisis and suggested that the border tensions could be a prelude to full-on military conflict.

“They have problems going through the roof. Nothing to do with us. People are upset,” Lukashenko said. “How do you sweep it under the rug? By calling someone an idiot, a low-life, a scumbag, who’s going to attack Poland tomorrow.”

In a sign of Russian support, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov in turn said that Belarusian forces were treating the migrants “very responsibly” and claimed the crisis was blowback from western interventionist policy in the Middle East.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the EU should provide financial assistance to Belarus to encourage it to stop the surge in migrants, comparing the situation to Brussels’ deal with Turkey during the 2015 migrant crisis. He added that Europe had a responsibility to accept the migrants.

“They don’t want to stay in Belarus, they want to go to Europe, that same Europe that has been advertising and promoting its way of life for may years. You need to answer for your own words and deeds,” Lavrov said, according to Interfax.

Additional reporting by Valentina Pop in Brussels

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