There were chaotic scenes at the Bruzgi-Kuźnica border post, where crowds of migrants could be seen breaking concrete blocks and picking up tree branches to throw them towards the Polish side.
Loud bangs rang out above the crowd and a thick cloud of smoke hung overhead. Belarusian state media BeITA reported that water cannons used by Polish forces sprayed a yellow liquid that caused burns, and people were choking and feeling sick from the smoke. A CNN crew was hit by water fired by Polish guards.
According to BelTA, Igor Malyk, deputy head of the radiation protection, chemical and biological protection and ecology department of the Belarusian armed forces, told reporters that the Polish security forces had used “toxic chemicals” against the refugees.
“Today we witnessed how Polish security forces at the Belarusian-Polish border used special means containing toxic irritant chemicals against refugees, including women and children,” said Malyk.
The women and children who just the day before had camped in tents near the border fence had withdrawn, and the men, many of whom expressed their anger at being left in limbo in appalling conditions, s amassed in the most dramatic clashes for Date. “We are fighting to stay alive,” one man told CNN.
Polish border guards said on Tuesday that migrants camped near the Bruzgi-Kuźnica checkpoint were behaving “aggressively”, throwing stones and various objects at Polish services. “In order to prevent illegal border crossing, water cannons were used against aggressive foreigners,” the security agency said on Twitter.
Polish security service spokesman Stanisław Żaryn wrote on Twitter on Tuesday about the clashes, praising Polish forces for successfully repelling “the first wave of border attacks”.
BelTA on Tuesday reported “a worsening of the situation” at the border, as migrants try “by all means to get to Poland” and Polish authorities respond with tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons , “pouring water on people in the cold.”
“People say they are tired of waiting and are ready to break through,” BeITA said.
“We are going back to Iraq”
Anton Bychkovsky, spokesman for the Belarusian State Border Guard Committee, told BelTA that the agency was launching an investigation into “the incident” on Tuesday.
It’s unclear what sparked Tuesday’s clashes, but there is a growing sense of frustration among migrants that Europe is not welcoming them. They now face what the United Nations has called “catastrophic” conditions, suffering from hunger and hypothermia, camped in fragile tents in makeshift camps on the border.
Rumors have circulated over the past 48 hours in the camps that the Polish government may open the border and allow a humanitarian corridor to Germany. Poland categorically denied this and those massed in the area received text messages from Polish authorities saying the information was “total lie and nonsense”.
The text message, also received by members of the CNN team in the region, states in part: “Poland will not let migrants pass to Germany. It will protect its border. Don’t be fooled, don’t try to take action. “
Polish forces appeared to have dispersed the crowds at the border checkpoint by nightfall on Tuesday, some returning to a camp in the woods while other vulnerable people were taken inside.
The Belarusian border agency told CNN that some migrants – including women, children and people with health problems – were being moved 1.5 kilometers to a treatment center, where they will be given shelter, food and medical care. Officials also told CNN that a decision will be made on their deportation to their home country. Most of the people gathered at the border are from the Middle East and Asia.
Families could be seen moving away from the scene of the clashes, with exhausted children in tow, some carried aloft on their parents’ shoulders. Asked by CNN where he was going, a man replied, “Back to Iraq. Goodbye Belarus.”
BelTA also reported on Tuesday evening that Lukashenko had tasked the local governor of Grodno to help prepare a logistics center to accommodate the refugees.
Lukashenko puts the lives of migrants “in danger”
The government of President Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly denied such claims, instead blaming the West for the crossings and accusing it of mistreating migrants.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday that the military alliance was “deeply concerned about how the Lukashenko regime is using vulnerable migrants as a hybrid tactic against other countries, and that in fact puts the lives of migrants in danger “.
He was speaking ahead of a meeting with EU defense ministers on Tuesday and a day after warning Moscow that NATO would back Ukraine against “potentially aggressive actions” amid a high concentration of Russian troops near the borders of Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the EU.
The military measures continue to test a fragile political order in the region and heighten concerns about the potential for a larger geopolitical crisis.
Lukashenko spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally on Tuesday about the situation on the Belarusian border, days after the two countries deployed their military might near Poland in joint parachute exercises.
The leaders also discussed the situation in neighboring Ukraine and US-led exercises near Russia’s borders and in the Black Sea, Lukashenko’s office said.
Russia, Belarus’ biggest political and economic partner, continues to defend Minsk’s handling of the border crisis while denying any involvement in it.
The EU and NATO reaffirmed their support for Poland. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called on Belarus to take “urgent measures” to restore border security.
Jakub Kumoch, head of the Polish president’s international policy office, said in a statement Tuesday evening that any new sanctions against Belarus should be “lasting” and “reach as many people as possible responsible for leading to this tragedy”.
Matthew Chance, Zahra Ullah and Antonia Mortensen reported near the Polish-Belarusian border, and Katharina Krebs from Moscow. Eliza Mackintosh wrote from London.