Europe adopts new sanctions against Belarus



SOKOLKA, Poland – A few kilometers from here, in the small Polish town of Bohoniki, a young Syrian, Ahmed Al Hasan, was buried on Monday. The 19-year-old man died at the end of October in a river in this frozen, forested buffer zone where thousands of migrants and asylum seekers were sent by the Belarusian government to try to enter Poland and the European Union .

As the funeral took place in Bohoniki, Belarusian forces massed large groups of migrants and encouraged them to forcibly cross the Polish border at Kuznica-Bruzgi, a 15-minute drive north-east. There, Polish troops and police were deployed in long lines to defend the border, which is scalloped with large spirals of razor wire.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers adopted new sanctions against the government of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the Belarusian leader, who has already been sanctioned for fraud by claiming a large election victory in August and for a subsequent severe crackdown on dissent.

The new sanctions, approved on Monday by European governments, would target “individuals and entities organizing or contributing to the activities of the Lukashenko regime which facilitate the illegal crossing of the external borders of the EU”, according to the European Commission, the executive bureaucracy of the bloc .

A list of those who will be affected by the assets freeze and travel bans under the new sanctions is expected to be finalized in the coming days. More than two dozen Belarusian officials are likely to be targeted; a Syrian airline, Cham Wings, for transporting migrants to Belarus; the Minsk hotel in the Belarusian capital, for the accommodation of migrants; and possibly Minsk Airport, according to EU officials.

“Today’s decision reflects the determination of the European Union to oppose the instrumentalization of migrants for political ends,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles. “We reject this inhuman and illegal practice. “

The European Union has called Lukashenko’s efforts a “hybrid attack”, saying he encouraged migrants to enter Belarus from countries like Syria and Iraq for the express purpose of sending them to Belarus. the European Union in retaliation for previous sanctions.

The new sanctions will have to undergo legal scrutiny by the European Commission before being implemented and coordinated with Britain, Canada and the United States, which could take several weeks.

The growing number of migrants at the Kuznica-Bruzgi border post on Monday, which raised fears of yet another tragedy and a new confrontation between the two governments, appears to be a response from Lukashenko at the meeting of EU foreign ministers. Lukashenko has vowed to retaliate against further sanctions, although his main supporter, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, berated him for threatening to cut off the supply of Russian natural gas flowing through his country to Europe. .

Mr Lukashenko was wrong and spoke angrily, Mr Putin said, while stressing that Russia would strictly adhere to its gas contracts with Europe – a key message as he tries to secure the final approval to use the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which goes directly to Germany and thus bypasses Belarus, Poland and Ukraine.

As EU ministers weighed the new sanctions, the situation at the border appeared to be deteriorating.

A video sent to the New York Times by Nishan Abdulqadr Mustafa, a 25-year-old Iraqi Kurd who is on the Belarusian side of the border, showed hundreds of migrants stranded outside the Kuznica-Bruzgi checkpoint. “We are going to Poland,” he said. “It’s too cold, we can’t take it anymore.

Poland and Lithuania, which have seen an increase in the number of migrants attempting to cross to Belarus, have declared states of emergency and border areas closed to journalists and aid workers, although some Polish aid groups worked to help those caught in the freezing conditions between Belarusians. and Polish forces.

Mr Lukashenko, however, allowed the media to roam his side of the border, highlight the plight of migrants and asylum seekers and try to shift blame for the crisis from his own government onto a European Union that refuses to ‘open its limits.

The stories of those trapped in the border area have been heartbreaking.

Mr. Hasan, 19, from Homs, Syria, was found in the river in late October near Bohoniki, the historic home of Poland’s Tatar Muslim minority, where there is a mosque, and an imam capable of leading the funeral services for him.

Fida al-Hasan, a Syrian doctor who lives in the nearby town of Bialystok, came to the funeral with her father, who was from Canada. “I came to the Bohoniki Mosque to pray,” Mr. Al-Hasan said. “We came here today because it is our duty to pray for this boy’s soul. He has no family here.

Two Syrians found Sunday evening by aid workers, and seen by the New York Times, had been stranded in the forest straddling the Polish-Belarusian border for days and were in an advanced stage of hypothermia. Their faces half frozen and their lips blued from the cold, they could hardly say a word to the aid workers who found them.

“They had been in the forest for at least four days,” said Agata Kolodziej of Fundacja Ocalenie, a Polish charity that has been helping migrants since September. “They only told us their names, we don’t know anything more. “

The Layous brothers, 41, and Khedr, 39, were from the city of Homs in Syria. A medical worker helped transport the brothers to an ambulance parked at the side of an unlit road outside Orla, Poland, about 15 miles from the border, aid workers said.

Activists at the border said they had received several messages a day from desperate migrants over the past two months. But since last week, their phones have gone largely silent. The Syrian brothers were one of the few who asked for help after obtaining the numbers of the activists, which circulated widely among the migrants at the border.

Instead, the only sign of migrants successfully crossing the border, passing through one of Europe’s oldest and densest forests, are items aid workers and residents have found on daily patrols: a backpack full of passport photos and documents; an empty tuna can with a Belarusian label; a Cham Wings boarding pass for a flight between Damascus and Minsk; an ophthalmologist prescription written in Arabic.

But otherwise, aid workers say they saw few signs of genuine migrants.

Since the 2015 migration crisis, at the height of the war in Syria, when more than a million migrants and asylum seekers tried to enter Europe, Europeans have tightened their border controls and declared that migration uncontrolled is no longer possible. This has resulted in ugly scenes in places from Greece and Italy to Hungary and now Poland and Lithuania as migrants attempt to enter the European Union.

EU officials insist, however, that unlike past crises, the scenes on the Belarus-Poland border are not due to migrant issues, but are the result of a form of war by Mr Lukashenko. .

Lukashenko, speaking to state media on Monday, denied orchestrating the current crisis and rejected the threat of further sanctions. “We will defend ourselves. That’s all, there is nowhere to retreat further, ”he said, quoted by the Belta state news agency.

Brussels has already succeeded in getting some airlines, including Turkish Airlines and Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, to agree to prevent migrants from reaching Minsk. Authorities hope that travel restrictions coupled with strict border measures will deter others in the Middle East from trying the new route to Europe via Belarus.

Monika Pronczuk reported from Sokolka, Poland, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels.

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