Baltic states warn of possible military escalation at Belarus border

Finger Lakes Times

The European Union’s Baltic member states warned on Thursday of a possible military escalation in the stand-off about migrants trying to reach the European Union from Belarus. The defence ministers of the Baltic states warned that the migrant bottlenecks, which the EU says are being deliberately created by Minsk, threaten a vast section of the bloc’s eastern flank — and could even spark a military conflict. “Large groups of people are gathered and transported to the border area, where they are then forced to cross the border illegally. This increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents which could also spill over into the military sphere,” Kalle Laanet of Estonia, Artis Pabriks of Latvia and Arvydas Anusauskas of Lithuania wrote in a joint statement. They condemned the “deliberate escalation of the Belarusian regime’s ongoing hybrid attack.” While stressing their countries’ bilateral support for Poland, the ministers also called on the EU “to increase its practical support to improve security at its external borders.” Many hundreds of migrants, including many children, are staying in the open in near-freezing temperatures along Belarus’ western border with the EU. Some have tents, others have only the nearby woods for shelter. Mostly from the Middle East, they are caught between the authoritarian regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who is accused of helping them reach the border area, while Polish authorities are refusing to let them into EU territory. Lukashenko — sometimes dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — has stood firm in the face of increasing pressure on his regime. On Thursday he threatened to cut energy supplies to Europe. “We heat Europe and they threaten to shut the borders,” he told a meeting of senior officials on Thursday. “So what if we shut off the gas?” Only a small proportion of gas reaches Europe through pipelines that cross Belarusian territory. Most arrives through Ukraine and the Baltic Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Poland, which has been bolstering its border security for weeks, asked for help in preventing any breaches by the migrants, who now number in the low thousands. Polish authorities reported on Thursday that a large group of migrants had tried during the night to break through to Polish territory. An EU Commission spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that experts from Europol’s anti-people-smuggling center would be “supporting Poland in overcoming the current situation at the border.”

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